Cambodia switched off mobile phone text messaging services yesterday to maintain what the government called a two-day "tranquility period," and keep voters from being flooded with campaign messages during this weekend's local elections.
The decision by the government and National Election Committee to temporarily block text messaging services has prompted protests from the country's opposition party and independent election monitoring groups, who denounced the ban as unconstitutional.
"The present situation is calm enough and does not require such a ban, which might be suitable only in a situation of armed conflict or war," Hang Puthea, executive director of the independent election monitoring group Nicfec, said yesterday.
Telecommunications Minister So Khun said on Friday that all three major phone companies in Cambodia had agreed to block text messages yesterday and today.
Voting takes place today for councils to administer Cambodia's 1,621 communes and urban sub-districts known as sangkats. The government has said text messaging will be restored after polls close at 3pm.
King Norodom Sihamoni, in a message broadcast Friday on state-run television station TVK, urged voters to cast their ballots without fear of threat or intimidation from any person or party.
"Please freely exercise your rights to vote according to your own conscience and trust in any candidate or party," the king said.
The text message ban followed a request from the National Election Committee, So Khun said. He referred to the ban as part of a necessary "tranquility period."
The election committee chairman, Im Suosdey, said on Friday the committee was concerned that political parties could use mobile phones "to send messages to 20 or 30 people at a time to galvanize them to vote for their parties."
Being inundated with text messages could spoil the calm ahead of voting and on election day itself, he said.
But the Sam Rainsy Party, the sole opposition party with parliamentary seats, denounced the ban as unlawful.
Mu Sochua, the party's secretary-general, said on Friday that the ban severely curbs people's freedom to communicate as guaranteed by the Constitution.
Kuol Panha, director of Comfrel, another independent election monitoring group, said yesterday that text message services are cheaper than telephone conversations and, therefore, are the most effective way for party agents and election monitors to report about the conduct of the polls.
The ban will curtail party agents' and monitors' ability to work effectively, he said.
"The election committee and the government are more concerned about the spread of campaign messages than the importance of free flow of information and the people's right" to communicate freely, Kuol Panha said.
Twelve political parties are fielding a total of 102,266 candidates in the local elections, held every five years.
The first local election was held in February 2002. Previously, communes were ruled by chiefs appointed by the Interior Ministry.
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