Journalists crowd around Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in the province of Kandal, September 1, 2016, as he registers to vote in local elections scheduled for June 4, 2017. (Reuters/Samrang Pring)

Cambodian minister threatens to close media outlets that defy sweeping election rules

May 19, 2017 1:34 PM ET

Bangkok, May 19, 2017--Cambodian authorities should allow media outlets to cover local elections freely and without fear of closure for running afoul of overly broad guidelines restricting election coverage, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith last week threatened to shutter media outlets that disobey guidelines for covering the June 4 elections that will come into effect tomorrow.

The minister on May 11 threatened to shutter "completely" newspapers, broadcasters, and news websites that disobey 12-page guidelines for news media the nominally independent National Electoral Commission issued in October 2016. The code forbids publishing or distributing news that affects "public order" or causes "fear or any violence," according to media reports. The document also forbids expressing opinions on or prejudging election events, reporting on rumors or baseless information, and insulting any national institution, political party, or candidate, according to news reports. News media will also be barred from distributing any news or information that is "confusing" or leads to a "loss of trust in the election," the reports said.

"If Cambodia wants its upcoming local elections to be viewed as free and fair, these intrusive, vague, and threatening censorship orders should be discarded immediately," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Journalists should be free to report and comment on all facets of the polls and their results."

Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 9 warned of "civil war" if voters did not support his Cambodian People's Party at the polls, according to news reports. Analysts of Cambodia politics have predicted the ruling party will face stiff competition from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in a race viewed as a barometer of national sentiment ahead of next year's general elections, reports said.

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea told local reporters that they should not ask questions of election officials and that media would be barred from taking photos during the voting, news reports said. Violations of the code under the Law on Elections of Lawmakers and the Law on Commune Elections carry fines of between five million and 20 million riel (US$1,250-$5,000).

Kanharith, the information minister, however, said that any media outlets found in violation of the code of conduct would have their licenses revoked by his ministry, according to news reports. It was not immediately clear if media groups or individual journalists accused of breaches would be able to appeal the ministry's decisions.

The threats are the latest in a series against Cambodian journalists. On April 29, Radio Free Asia reporter Huot Vuthy fled Cambodia for the U.S. after receiving a summons to appear in court on charges he misidentified himself in order to interview political activists imprisoned at the capital's Prey Sar prison complex, according to media reports. Vuthy denied the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison, the reports said.

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