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Cambodia: Media Bias Delegitimises Election, Says Human Rights Watch

Free and fair elections were out of reach for Cambodians last week, partly because of the ruling party's near-monopoly on broadcast media, say Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members.

Free and fair elections were out of reach for Cambodians last week, partly because of the ruling party's near-monopoly on broadcast media, say Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members.

The 11 political parties competing in the 27 July election for the national Parliament have not had equal access to radio and television, "by far the most important source of information for most Cambodians," says Human Rights Watch.

Information broadcast on television and radio is almost exclusively in favour of the ruling party, Cambodian People's Party's (CPP), and Prime Minister Hun Sen - in violation of Cambodia's election campaign rules.

"The lack of fair access to the broadcast media alone is enough to delegitimise the election," says Human Rights Watch. "If voters can't get accurate information and their choices are determined by fear, an election loses much of its meaning."

The election comes in the wake of the violent murder of opposition journalist Khim Sambo and his son, who were gunned down in Phnom Penh on 11 July. Sambo had been a reporter for more than 10 years for "Moneaksekar Khmer" ("Khmer Conscience"), a newspaper affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and one of only a handful of papers consistently critical of the government. He was known for his hard-hitting articles about government corruption, illegal logging and land grabbing. No one has been arrested for the killing.

At the time, the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) said the attack was timed to create a "climate of fear" among journalists and opposition members prior to the election.

Although there's been a decrease in violence compared to past campaigns, when literally hundreds would die in politically motivated attacks, the build-up to the July elections has been marked by calculated efforts by the CPP to harass and intimidate opposition members and journalists.

In June, military police arrested "Moneaksekar Khmer" editor Dam Sith, who is also running as a SRP candidate in the election, after the paper reported allegations about a foreign minister's role during the Khmer Rouge regime. Sith was released after several days in detention, but criminal charges related to the article are still pending.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and CAPJ, the government also forced the closure of a newspaper supplement and a radio station in the run-up to the elections, because of alleged licensing issues.

"Elections in Cambodia under existing conditions devalue the process and put a free and fair vote further out of reach of the Cambodian people," says Human Rights Watch.

According to news reports, Hun Sen, a former communist who has ruled for two decades, probably expanded his majority in the election, buoyed by rising prosperity and a nationalist dispute with neighbouring Thailand. None of the political parties seem to have dented CPP's rule, which is bolstered by the tight control of the media and crackdowns on opponents.

IFJ is urging all journalists, editors and media owners to ensure that the safety and protection of journalists is a high priority during the election and its aftermath.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: tinyurl.com/6phgwq
- IFJ: tinyurl.com/5q8586
- "IFEX Communiqué" on Sambo's murder (16 July):
www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/95422/
- IFEX Cambodia page: tinyurl.com/6gbjlh



04.08.2008