Amid accusations of bias in favour of the ruling party – and following the removal of the main opposition party from the electoral field – the National Election Committee has announced the creation of a new press reaction team to “attack back at negative points”.
The ostensibly independent electoral body – which was reformed after the 2013 national elections to include four members appointed by the ruling party and four by the opposition, with one “neutral” member – appeared to tilt in favour of the ruling party last month following the Supreme Court’s widely condemned decision to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
In response to that ruling, three NEC members nominated by the CNRP resigned. They were replaced by picks from two minor parties and Dim Sovannarom, deputy director of the government’s human rights council and, a former colleague said last week, a previous campaign manager for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
According to the NEC statement, the press reaction team is under the command of CPP-nominated Chairman Sik Bun Hok. The head of the unit is Som Sorida, another ruling party-nominated member of the board. The body’s official spokesman and “neutral” member, Hang Puthea, was not listed as being involved.
Among the group’s tasks are “collecting information published on public media to analyse the negative points which defame the reputation of the NEC, making the public confused”, and “replying in writing in case there are negative points in news relating to the NEC”.
The committee will also suggest to the chairman “ways to take action to block and prevent negative news”.
The team’s first public statement, before the creation of the body was announced, hit back at accusations of bias while parroting ruling party officials’ frequent warnings of “colour revolution” – a narrative used to target the opposition – even though the committee is by design supposed to avoid politicisation.
Yesterday election monitors expressed concern that the election body could simply become another government institution wielded to attack critics.
Sam Kuntheamy, director of election monitor Nicfec, saw the move as an overreaction to criticism, and an attempt at intimidation.
“I think they are putting pressure on the media,” he said, adding “the media should have freedom to release information”.
“In the past they had a spokesman, so they don’t need a new group,” he said. NEC spokesman Puthea could not be reached yesterday. Rong Chhun, one of the CNRP-nominated members of the committee who resigned in protest, also questioned the purpose of the group.
“In my view, it is not necessary for the NEC because it already has an information department . . . We don’t know the real intention for making this group,” he said.
Yoeurng Sotheara, legal expert at election watchdog Comfrel, said the NEC should “open up to whatever criticism, suggestions and recommendations that are to improve the NEC to operate independently”.
“If they create this unit and just fight back against criticism and try to create reasons to fight back against civil society . . . that would be bad,” Sotheara said.
When asked if the NEC is still independent, he replied: “There is no more balance of power.”
The dissolution of the CNRP has also raised questions about international support for the elections, funding for which goes through the NEC. The US pulled its funding immediately after the ruling to dissolve the CNRP, but no other countries have done so.
European Union Ambassador George Edgar said yesterday that cutting funds to the NEC was under consideration, but “a formal decision has not yet been taken whether we will continue or suspend”.
Additional reporting by Leonie Kijewski