How the ERA manipulated the media

[Published in the Cambodia Herald on 17 February 2014.]

The numerous misrepresentations and distortions in the report of the Electoral Reform Association are more than enough to make it clear that this was a political project intended to discredit the 28 July general election, not an objective study of the electoral process. But if anyone has any doubts about that conclusion, there is further, indisputable, evidence.

This evidence is the propaganda campaign carried out by a leading figure of the ERA a month and a half before the release of the ERA report, a campaign that misrepresented what the NGOs involved in the ERA had discovered or concluded about the conduct of the election. This campaign succeeded in misleading the Cambodia Daily and therefore, presumably, many of that paper’s readers.

Laura Thornton is the head of the Cambodia office of the National Democratic Institute, a US government-funded organisation that appears to be the directing force of the ERA. On two successive days in October, Thornton gave interviews to the Cambodia Daily in which she claimed to be revealing the results of Cambodian NGOs’ observations of the election. The Daily ran major stories based on these interviews in its 29 and 30 October editions.

In an earlier article (, I quoted one of Thornton’s claims in the interviews, namely her statement that the Center for Advanced Study had conducted a nationwide survey which found that “29.5 percent of citizens attempted to vote on election day, but were unable to”. As Thornton told the Daily, “this number of disenfranchised voters had the potential to have changed the outcome of the elections”. But as a moment’s thought makes clear, NDI and/or CAS overreached themselves: the figure is so large as to be absurd, and is furthermore contradicted by the observations of other NGOs.

The alleged CAS survey has never been made public, but it didn’t need to be, since it had already served Thornton’s purpose of publicising the idea that large numbers of Cambodians had been deprived of their right to vote.

One day earlier, Thornton had provided the Daily with what she said were “excerpts” from the upcoming ERA report:

“… on election day the warnings became reality, as eligible citizens with accurate identification were turned away from the polls, while at the same time busloads of people unknown by the community were trucked to polling stations to vote using no identification or ICEs.

“If those large numbers of disenfranchised citizens had been allowed to vote and if illegal voting had been prevented, it is unclear what the true election result would have been.”

It certainly sounded as though the ERA had the evidence of wrongdoing: busloads of people without any identification at all (not even Vietnamese army ID cards?) being taken around the country to vote. If you couldn’t find a bus in Phnom Penh on 28 July, now you know the reason.

It may be that Thornton missed her true calling. She should have been a screenwriter for Hollywood B-movies. Neither of the paragraphs she “quoted” for the Cambodia Daily is in the ERA report.

I could not force myself to read the ERA report a second time, but I did word searches for “warnings”, “busloads”, “trucked”, “no identification or ICEs”, “disenfranchised citizens” and “true election result”. None of them occur in the ERA report.

The only thing I could find in the report that comes close to part of the quotation in the Cambodia Daily is “… eligible citizens with valid identification were turned away from the polls, while at the same time voters reported seeing people unknown in their communities voting by using ICEs”. So “busloads” become “people” – how many? – who didn’t happen to be known to some – how many? – voters interviewed by an NGO that is not identified.

In short, Thornton put one over on the Cambodia Daily. She provided the paper with juicy-sounding “excerpts” guaranteed to discredit the election and create an atmosphere in which other ERA accusations were more likely to be believed. When the report was finally made public six weeks later, maybe no one would notice that the “excerpts” didn’t exist.

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