Cambodia has overturned a much-criticized order banning local radio stations from broadcasting foreign programs ahead of general elections.
The Ministry of Information said in a statement late Saturday that it was reversing the June 25 directive following "requests" but did not elaborate.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration had come under fire from the United States as well as foreign and local rights groups for directing all FM stations to cease rebroadcasting Khmer-language radio programs by foreign broadcasters in the run-up to the July 28 elections.
Khmer programs of at least three foreign broadcasters—U.S.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), as well as Radio Australia—had been barred from being aired under the directive, which was seen as a major setback to media freedom in the country and aimed at stifling the voice of the opposition.
"Due to requests asking the Ministry of Information to allow the rebroadcasting of foreign programs in Khmer language through local FM radio stations, the ministry allows all FM radio stations that sell airtime to foreign radio stations to resume broadcast as normal from today," the ministry said in the statement on Saturday.
It added that its June 21 directive ordering all stations in the country not to broadcast opinion polls or messages from political parties five days before election day still stands.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, when contacted by RFA, confirmed the reversal of the ban.
"Yes, I can confirm it now but also I want to make it clear that I was not the one who ordered the suspension," he said.
The June 25 directive was signed by acting Information Minister Ouk Pratna.
Khieu Kanharith said he was currently on leave as he was a candidate in the elections. The reversal order was not signed by any official.
The U.S. government had lodged a protest with the Cambodian authorities over the directive, saying it will throw in doubt the legitimacy of the elections, in which Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is widely expected to win, enabling him to extend his 28 years in power.
The CPP has won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
"The directive is a flagrant infringement on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and is yet another incident that starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process," John Simmons, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said in a statement.
About 10 local FM stations carry Khmer programs by RFA, which also broadcasts on shortwave in Cambodia.
Mam Sonando, a Cambodian activist who runs the independent Beehive Radio and is an ardent critic of Hun Sen's administration, had called the ban "illegal" and "childish."
He said the order would hurt political parties scrambling to convey their messages to the people ahead of the elections.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had said it was puzzled by the Cambodian government's suggestion of foreign meddling in the elections.
"There has been no history in Cambodia of foreigners participating on a partisan basis in elections," said Brad Adams, executive director of Asia Division.
"What this is really about is they don't want foreigners coming in and observing the elections and then doing their job independently and professionally and then reporting their results."
He said the Hun Sen government was trying to prevent reporting of events leading up to the elections.
Local rights group Adhoc's chief investigator Ny Chakriya said the ministry's ban was "not based on any applicable laws," pointing out that "it is illegal and can’t be enforced."
“The ban is against the constitution because the constitution guarantees freedom of expression,” he said.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.