RFA goes hunting

Not for the first time, Radio Free Asia has seized on comments from a UN official and a professional NGO critic to attack the Cambodian government.

On July 20, RFA broadcast that Rhona Smith, the UN special rapporteur on Cambodia, had “expressed concern” about aspects of the campaign for the July 29 general election.

According to RFA, Smith’s “concern” mainly revolved around “reports” of government or Cambodian People’s Party members “intimidating” voters by telling them that failing to vote or advocating that other people not vote is illegal.

One of the problems here is that RFA – whether quoting Smith accurately or not, I don’t know – simply refers to “reports”. This is a standard practice of bad journalism: it seeks to convince readers or listeners that something is true, but doesn’t identify the source of the “reports”, so that it’s impossible to judge whether the “reports” are reliable.

Some leaders of the former CNRP have advocated that voters boycott the election. Supporters of the CPP, or of the 19 other parties contesting the election, have of course urged voters to vote. If they have claimed that it is illegal not to vote, that is probably incorrect, and most Cambodians would probably know that, since no election here has had anything like 100% participation, but there is no record of non-voters in previous elections being prosecuted.

While there is not a Cambodian law that requires everyone to vote, compulsory voting is not at all unknown in countries generally regarded as democratic. As an Australian citizen, I am legally required to vote in national, state and even local government elections. In the past, Australians who advocated not voting (I am not one of them) have been prosecuted. Wikipedia lists more than 20 countries in which voting is required, although enforcement of such laws is apparently uneven.

RFA – and maybe Rhona Smith? – may also be unaware that voting in Cambodia is done by secret ballot. So if someone wants to protest against something by not voting but is afraid to be identified, they can simply not mark their ballot before depositing it in the ballot box.

The RFA also drags in comments from Human Rights Watch, none of which are related to election boycotting, but are part of RFA’s effort to gather up every possible criticism. For at least 20 years, Human Rights Watch has been notorious for always slamming the Cambodian government, even if doing so required inventing “facts”.

This HRW complaint was even sillier than usual, namely that some “senior members of the security forces” had publicly supported voting for Hun Sen. In most countries, members of the security forces have the same rights as other citizens, including the right to support the political party of their choice. Also in most countries, including Cambodia, senior officials have no way of knowing how any person has voted.

In its effort to create some sort of scandal, RFA also provides an illustration of what might be called “How to lie without lying”. While the article was mainly about Rhona Smith’s comment, RFA also threw in additional “reports” from unidentified sources. One was that CPP “agents had threatened to end public services for indigenous residents of Mondulkiri province” if they didn’t vote the right way.

RFA then presented two paragraphs that skipped back to its earlier account of election boycotts, perhaps to cloud listeners’ memories of what had just been said, before it returned to Mondulkiri:

Earlier this week, when asked about the possibility of voter fraud in Mondulkiri province, Hang Puthea, the spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC)—Cambodia’s top electoral body—told RFA that he had not received any complaints and was therefore unable to act.

But NGOs said that threatening to withhold public services from those who refuse to cast a ballot for a specific party is unlawful, and suggested that the NEC should examine the claims.”

Most readers/listeners of those paragraphs would take away the idea that the NEC had refused to investigate accusations of voter intimidation in Mondulkiri. That is the intended impression, but it is totally false. Look again:

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea was not asked about voter intimidation; he was “asked about the possibility of voter fraud”, which is quite a different matter.

A further distortion occurs in the second paragraph quoted, which RFA begins with “But” – implying that the NGOs contradict the NEC spokesman when they say that withholding services is unlawful. But Hang Puthea didn’t defend withholding services or suggest that doing so would be legal. What he said was that the NEC had not received any complaints about such threats.

And yet RFA quotes approvingly unnamed NGOs that it says want the NEC to “examine” the claims that it hasn’t received! RFA set out to catch the government in some kind of bad behaviour, but ends up catching nothing more than its own tail.