Thursday, 20 June 2013

Civil Servants Become CPP Election Campaigners

By and - June 20, 2013

On the ground floor of the Council of Ministers building, dozens of staff and volunteers working for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit (PQRU) shuffled about Wednesday, providing information to international and local press about the World Heritage Committee meeting taking place next door in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office—the Peace Palace.

Upstairs, in a cramped office on the 4th floor, amid desks piled high with newspapers, PQRU staff were busy doing another job: assisting in the campaign to re-elect Mr. Hun Sen and his long-ruling CPP. 

The PQRU, which operates as a public information office for the Council of Ministers, has typically been used to spotlight the accomplishments of Mr. Hun Sen’s administration.
But now the unit is firmly behind the CPP election bid, and using state resources in the process. The line between their work as civil servants, who should serve the public impartially, and that of ruling party operatives, has blurred to irrelevance, critics say.

“I think they have devoted their time to serving the Cambodian People’s Party, to attacking and counterattacking the opposition party, and have left behind their more important duty to serve the public,” said Moeun Chhean Na­riddh, director of Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
Over the past two months, the PQRU office has ramped up its role as a campaign machine for the CPP ahead of the July 28 na­tional election.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen will be the CPP candidate for prime minister,” states the narrator of a new 16-minute promotional video clip produced by the PQRU and placed on the unit’s official website.
“If you love him, if you have com­passion for him and if you trust in him, please vote for the CPP. Voting for the CPP is voting for yourself—for peace and development,” the narrator says.

The PQRU has also been at the forefront in attacks on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and its acting leader, Kem Sokha.

On Tuesday, the unit posted online a 40-minute video interview with Keo Sophannary, a woman who says she is the scorned ex-mistress of Mr. Sokha. In the interview, the alleged mistress detailed her alleged love affair and de­nounced the opposition leader for failing to help support two children she says they adopted together.

On its website, the PQRU ex­presses its party political leanings under an editorial headlined: “The differences between the actual work the CPP does and the empty promises of the opposition party.”
“The opposition’s policies are at­tempts to tremendously exaggerate their cheating political messages in order to cheat voters and hide the great achievements of the CPP under the rightful leadership of Samdech Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia,” the editorial reads.

Tith Sothea, a spokesman for the PQRU who previously worked as a journalist for Voice of America, said that because the government is so largely controlled by the ruling CPP, doing the work of the ruling party was akin to the work of the state.

“This government is led by the CPP, so the general work [of the PQRU], more or less, is to serve mutual benefits,” he said.

The unit, Mr. Sothea said, was launched around 2008 to “show the government’s productivity” and “expose the truth about any faulty information or attack from opposition groups—everyone who is opposition, not just the opposition party—to the public.”

Along with Mr. Sothea, the PQRU includes among its spokesmen Ek Tha, who previously worked for Reuters, while the unit’s chairman is Council of Ministers’ Secretary of State and longtime CPP stalwart Svay Sitha.

Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia executive director Kuol Panha said that the PQRU is a microcosm of widespread “confusion” among civil servants as to whether they serve the state or the CPP.

“I think the current government’s functioning and the role of the government is very confused. They all engage—including civil servants and members of the military on all levels—in supporting the political activity of the CPP,” he said.

“We have no strong democratic institutions to independently check them,” he said of civil servants who see their roles as functionaries of the CPP.

“They must ask supervisors of the office to be accountable, but… they are the people who organize this sort of political service. So nothing happens,” he said.

Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee (NEC), which has been criticized for its links to the CPP, declined to comment directly on the legality of the party political campaigning by the PQRU.

Mr. Nytha did, however, say that “using state resources, such as government officials and their time, to campaign for a political party is not right.”

Mr. Nytha then said that the NEC was not aware of the pro-CPP content on the PQRU’s website. “We have a team to monitor media broadcasts, but perhaps we haven’t gone that far yet,” he said.
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that, according to the election laws that prohibit campaigning by civil servants or the use of state resources to campaign for political parties, the PQRU is breaking the law.

“It has been doing a job that is not allowed for public servants. It has been using government facilities to conduct a kind of campaign,” he said. “So it has been breaking the law for quite a while.”

© 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

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