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Cablegate: Prime Time for Televised Candidate Debates In

VZCZCXRO1263
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0270/01 0811026
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 211026Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PHNOM PENH 000270

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, P, D, DRL, IO

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV KDEM PHUM EAID CB
SUBJECT: PRIME TIME FOR TELEVISED CANDIDATE DEBATES IN
CAMBODIAN NATIONAL ELECTION

REF: PHNOM PENH 73

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: To support prime time TV access for some
of NDI's planned candidate debates during the June-July
campaign season, the Ambassador March 21 called on Minister
of Information Khieu Kanharith. The Ambassador emphasized
the importance of media access for all parties in advance of
the July 27 national election. Earlier, the Ambassador had
appealed to National Election Committee (NEC) Chairman Im
Suosdey to urge that the RGC televise some of the one-hour
debates in full and had also raised the issue with DPM and
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng (who oversees the NEC). Khieu
Kanharith said he fully supported the idea of televising
party debates run by civil society and urged the USAID
Mission to support NDI as it applied for official approval of
the debates with NEC. Kanharith also agreed to the
Ambassador's proposal that national television TVK take the
lead and attempt to air at least 10 debates from each of the
targeted provinces on prime time. This will be the
first-ever, widely televised debates, giving opposition
parties a more equal footing in media access. Khieu
Kanharith parried the Ambassador's remark that the MFA had
gone too far in a press release implying the USG had released
our human rights report to affect the elections by noting he
personally had not said anything like that. END SUMMARY.

Minister of Information: TV Debates a "Great Idea"
--------------------------------------------- -----

2. (SBU) Khieu Khanarith warmly received the Ambassador,s
suggestion for televising debates, saying it would be good
for Cambodia, and calling it a "great idea." He cautioned
however that the debates would have to follow the legal
framework established in the NEC,s rules and could occur
only during the election campaign period (June 25 - July 25).
In particular, the regulations stated that all parties - no
matter the size - had to be included in some fashion, he
noted. When informed that a minimal level of participation
was planned (at least one debate for each of the minor
parties), he opined there would be "no problem at all" in
televising the debates. He recalled other debates organized
by civil society that included only the major parties, but
these were not aired on national TV or national radio, he
said. NDI expects widespread radio coverage of the 30
planned National Assembly Candidate Debates, some being live.
The one-hour TV debates will be limited to five parties and
all contesting parties will be invited at different times.
In 2003, only a limited number of debates were run on TV.

3. (SBU) Suggesting that the NEC and UNDP election
assistance program could sponsor a separate televised issues
round-table to include the smaller parties, Kanharith noted
that it might even be possible to then restrict televised
debates to the major parties only (CPP, FUNCINPEC, SRP and
NRP were major participants in the commune council
elections). "NDI could supervise the real debates and the
NEC and UNDP can take care of the others," he noted. (NOTE:
Cambodia has a long tradition of multi-party participation in
national elections and most observers expect at least 25 of
the 45 currently registered parties to stand in the
elections. END NOTE.)

Prime Time Slots Considered
---------------------------

4. (SBU) Khieu Kanharith readily agreed that National
Television station TVK and the national AM and FM radio
stations should air the taped, one-hour debates. (Each
debate would have five candidates in a format that allows for
presentations as well as directed exchanges and would be
moderated by experienced emcees, many of whom participated as
moderators in the commune council election debates.) In
answer to the Ambassador's question about which time slots
might be made available for the debates, Khieu Kanharith said
that the best times were in the afternoon (12:30 to 2:00
p.m.) or directly after the evening news (after 8:00 p.m.).
He noted that he personally would take leave to be able to
participate in the public campaigning between June 25 and
July 25, but that NEC would have control over the time slots
during the campaign period. Kanharith pointed out that
ruling party CPP is learning how to participate in democratic
elections. Some observers predict that, based on commune
council debate experience last year, the CPP likely will make
a good showing in the debates.

NEC Gave Earlier, Informal Nod
------------------------------

5. (SBU) In a February 28 meeting, NEC Chairman Im Suosdey

PHNOM PENH 00000270 002 OF 002


told the Ambassador he was fully supportive of the debate
idea in principle. He mentioned prior television coverage of
debates in 2003 - a limited number were run on the less
popular military station, TV5. The NDI plan on media access
for debates in 2008 is much more ambitious. NDI expects
widespread radio coverage of the National Assembly Candidate
Debates, some being live. The one-hour debates will be
limited to five parties, but all contesting parties will be
invited at different times. In 2003, only a limited number
of debates were run on TV. The NEC reaction to the final
formal submission of a plan will be decisive. However, Im
Suosdey made it clear that the government at the cabinet
level and the Ministry of Information in particular would
have to be involved in a final decision on televising
debates. (NOTE: In early March, Human Rights Party leader
Khem Sokha floated a trial balloon about having debates among
the parties' prime-minister designates. This predictably
resulted in a series of salvoes back and forth in the print
press with Hun Sen who finally stated in highly publicized
speeches that he didn't need to debate because not only did
everyone know him, but he was known to deliver to the people.
When Hun Sen talked about education, he built new schools;
when Hun Sen spoke about transportation, he gave the people
new roads, he said. When Khem Sokha persisted, Hun Sen said
he didn't need to debate with someone who had been corrupt in
running a human rights organization, or with someone else who
could never manage his party nor even his family - thinly
veiled references to Khem Sokha and Prince Ranariddh. It was
no surprise that NEC's Im Suosdey later confirmed to Pol/Ec
Chief that PM-designate debates were not on. END NOTE.)

Sar Kheng Very Upbeat; USAID Taking Next Steps
--------------------------------------------- -

6. (SBU) In a March 3 meeting, DPM and Minister of Interior
Sar Kheng told the Ambassador that he did not think the
government would object to such debates being televised.
This has been done before during past elections and NDI and
IRI had even prepared public forums (issue debates) before
the official election campaign season, he noted. As for the
media and the time of broadcasts, the NEC will need to raise
those issues with the government through official channels,
he said.

7. (SBU) USAID's Democracy and Governance Office has
already relayed the news about RGC support to date and NDI is
reportedly working on the formal submission of a plan to NEC
for the 10 televised debates.

8. (SBU) COMMENT: Although Sar Kheng was as positive and
supportive as he could be, he seemed cautious in the early
March meeting. We now have a better indication this proposed
prime-time debate series will fly. We assume that, as we had
planned, Sar Kheng broached the idea of televised debates at
the highest levels. If all goes according to plan, this will
be the first time that the Cambodian electorate will witness
National Assembly candidates debating their parties'
platforms in the most widely accessible and influential
media. All of the polling indicates that the vast majority
of Cambodians now get their news from television. These
debates will be a small step toward more access to the
electorate through major media often controlled by the CPP or
run by private CPP supporters.
MUSSOMELI

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