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Press Freedom

Opposition makes voice heard despite obstacles

Weeks ahead of the general election, Cambodia's ruling party has attempted to make opposition campaigning more difficult; bans aimed at independent radio stations have raised concern over press freedom.

Every day for the past week, people on motorbikes and trucks have plied the roads of Cambodia shouting through microphones, urging the nation's millions of voters to cast a ballot for their party come July 28.

Though the ruling Cambodian People's Party dominates the television, radio, and newspapers, for the month leading up to election day, anyone with a loudspeaker has a voice.

"We do not have access to TV. Eleven stations are controlled by the government or by people related to the ruling party," said Yim Sovann, a spokesperson for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and a lawmaker candidate in Phnom Penh. "So we travel to disseminate our message. We use loudspeakers. We go from one house to another and speak to people directly. This is the only way we can access the voters."

For all but the ruling party, this is their last, and best, chance to get word out.

Cambodia - while lacking the gags of many of its neighbours - nevertheless regularly ranks among the lowest in press freedom listings. Television, radio and newspapers are almost exclusively government-aligned - owned, primarily, by family members or friends of powerful officials.

Campaigning activities by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (Photo: DW / Abby Seiff)

The opposition claims it has no access to TV advertising

"Conditions for the media are critical in Cambodia, which fell 26 places to 143th in the index, its lowest ever position," Reporters Without Borders warned earlier this year. "Since 2011, news organizations, in particular independent local and foreign radio stations, have been subjected to a policy of censorship orchestrated by an increasingly ruthless information ministry."

The extent of that control was placed in stark reality last week, when the Ministry of Information issued a 31-day ban on all foreign radio stations broadcasting in Khmer.

For many Cambodians, the stations - which include broadcasters like Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Australia, and Radio France Internationale (RFI) - are the only opportunity to gather non-party aligned news. Reporters regularly cover stories of land grabs, cronyism, and corruption - in other words, precisely the type of uncomfortable truths the government is keen to skirt ahead of the vote.

After news of the ban leaked Friday, June 28, the backlash was swift. A US State Department official warned that the directive "call[ed] into question … the credibility of the electoral process," while the stations themselves howled. Barely 24 hours later, the government made a rare decision and lifted the ban.

"The reason that the ministry allows [them] to re-broadcast is thanks to the requests from those radio station owners," the Ministry of Information explained, in a brief notice.

Progress on a second, narrower ban has been less successful. Though rights groups have cried foul over a directive effectively shutting down election coverage in the five days leading up the vote, government officials have stood firm, saying quiet was needed during that week.

A silencer

Noise is the last thing the government can afford at the moment.

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's election campaigning (Photo: DW / Abby Seiff)

The opposition uses unconventional means to get their message across

Set to be one of the fiercest in years, Cambodia's 2013 national election has sent the CPP scrambling. Though the ruling party stands no chance of losing, a dip in its number of parliament seats would prove a grave embarrassment following four straight mandates of increasing power.

To seal the deal, the government has gone into overdrive in recent months. TV rarely mentions policy or voter education; instead, coverage focuses on achievements. Thousands of hours have been devoted to breathless footage of government leaders handing out rice and kramas (scarves) to impoverished villagers. In karaoke videos splashed across the channels, singers intone about infrastructure projects and the kindness of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, who serves as president of the Cambodian Red Cross.

So it is unsurprising that any incursion on this media landscape would be viewed as a threat.

Although radio reaches less of the populace than television, it, too, is a meaningful propaganda wing of the government. Of 160 licensed stations, only two "could be considered truly independent," according to the Cambodian Center for Independent Media.

"The government is very sensitive to different information," said election watchdog Panha. "Most of the ministers here come from a background of one-party control of the state, everything is positive, and good from the government … there's only positive news from the media. They really believe in the role of propaganda in the media which is why they're so scared of the opposition having access to the media."

Slowly, however, they have managed to do just that. In most rural areas, the status quo remains. But in cities and towns across the country, independent radio is making a greater incursion; Internet - unimpeded by self-censorship - is slowly edging in, and distribution of independent newspapers is increasing.

Mam Sonando, 71, is taken back to prison after the end of the second and final day of his appeal hearing. 6 March 2013. (Photo: DW/Robert Carmichael)

Mam Sonando of Beehive Radio was sentenced to 20 years in prison before some of the charges against him were finally dropped

In October of last year, independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on charges of stoking an insurrection. Just weeks before the 71-year old owner of Beehive Radio was arrested in July, he had reported on a dissident group who requested the International Criminal Court investigate the premier. Sonando was labelled a prisoner of conscience and his case pressed by US President Barack Obama and French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Months later, the appeal court dropped the strongest of the charges and released him on probation.

Today Sonando's station, one of the two Cambodian broadcasters labelled independent, sells airtime to the opposition, broadcasts reports from RFA and VOA, remains dedicated to the cause of uncomfortable information.

If the TV ran like that, said the opposition's Sovann, if "all political messages were presented with balanced news, I think the opposition would win."

DW.DE