The Ministry of Information has threatened to shut down media outlets if they fail to abide by the National Election Committee’s media guidelines and code of conduct leading up to and during the commune elections on June 4.
In a May 11 letter signed by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, media outlets, including TV and radio stations, newspapers and online news sites, are informed they must obey the written regulations or face being shuttered “completely”.
“We suggest that all media coverage must abide by all the regulations imposed by the NEC,” Ministry of Information spokesman Ouk Kimseng said. “This time we will be more strict.”
A copy of the 12-page code of conduct signed by Sik Bun Hok, chairman of the NEC, outlines a long list of forbidden activities during the two-week campaign season, which begins this Saturday.
For example, journalists are not allowed to “publish or distribute [information] that affects the public order that cause fear or any violence”.
They are also banned from expressing a personal idea or prejudgment of an event being covered, reporting on rumours or baseless information and insulting a national institution, political party or candidate.
Media outlets also are forbidden from publishing or broadcasting reports on “confusing” subjects that lead to a “loss of trust in the election”.
According to Hang Puthea, NEC member and spokesman, all outlets must inform the NEC of any advertising spots by political parties, and are required to charge the same prices to all parties. Puthea added that under the code of conduct journalists must register with the NEC and, after doing so, can enter a polling station.
“Journalists should not ask questions to the election officials on the process of operation,” he said. “They cannot take photos during the process of voting.”
The NEC’s code of conduct – which cites both the Law on Elections of Lawmakers and the Law on Commune Elections – only calls for a fine of 5 million to 20 million riel [about $1,250 to $5,000] if the rules are flouted. The information minister’s letter, however, mentions the same laws but calls for potentially revoking an offending outlet’s licence.
The letter also reminds media organisations that they must halt any election coverage 24 hours prior to when the polling starts, as stated in Article 70 of the Law on Commune Elections.
Outlets will not even be allowed to report on people’s moods about the election during the period because the ministry does not want any outside influence on voters before the polling starts, Kimseng said.
“For 24 hours, you are not allowed to publish or broadcast anything pertaining to the election,” Kimseng said. “If there is any breach of that, the licence will be revoked and the business will be shut down completely.”
Pa Nguon Teang, executive director for the Cambodia Center for Independent Media, said before the 2012 and 2013 elections the ministry issued similar directives, though this time the ban on reporting on elections one day before the polling starts is written into law.
“It’s not good when the media is silenced for 24 hours, especially during the election when it’s important for people to receive information,” he said.
Meanwhile, San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said that rules for election coverage should ensure independence of the media, not place undue restrictions on it.
“Independence and transparency is something that would build people’s trust in the NEC,” he said.