Advocating Democracy

[Published in the Phnom Penh Post in October 2002.]

Your article “Courting controversy: Cambodia and the ICC” (October 11-24 issue) quotes “democracy advocate” Dr. Lao Mong Hay, with no other indication as to why his opinion on Cambodian judges being nominated for the ICC is worthy of note.

An “advocate” is someone who speaks in favor of something. Hence we may conclude from the Post’s description that Dr. Lao Mong Hay speaks in favor of democracy. That is certainly commendable, but I fail to see how it makes him more qualified than anyone else to assess the quality of Cambodian judges.

I also speak in favor of democracy whenever the subject arises, as, indeed, do most people I know. But none of us has ever been phoned by a Post journalist who asked, “Are you still in favor of democracy? Yes? Good! Then what do you think about Cambodian judges for the ICC?” In fact, my advocacy of democracy has never caused me to be interviewed by any newspaper on any subject – not even the subject of democracy. I think this is as it should be: Being in favor of democracy is good, but it doesn’t prove that you know anything about anything else.

I would suggest that Dr. Lao Mong Hay was quoted, not because he advocates democracy, but because he is a prominent critic of the government. That’s fine: The government suggests nominating judges for the ICC; some people think this is not a good idea; critics of the government are an obvious source for an opposing comment. Readers then have an indication of the government’s views and critics’ views, clearly identified.

But a problem arises when the critic is identified only as a “democracy advocate”. The label is worse than irrelevant; it is loaded, implying that the object of his criticism must be something undemocratic. (In fact, in so far as democracy comes into the composition of the ICC, it would be more democratic for small nations like Cambodia to be represented.)

I hope that future Post articles can avoid this use of irrelevant and/or loaded labels.

P.S. I showed this letter to cricket enthusiast Harold Weatherby, and he agrees.

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