Cambodia has banned local radio stations from broadcasting content from foreign media in the run-up to a general election next month and also told them to stop carrying reports on foreigners playing any role in the campaign.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving leaders, has total control of local television and most radio stations and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is expected to win the July 28 election.
Radio Free Asia (RFA), one of two U.S. funded stations which offer programmes in Khmer through local radio and is free from government influence, said the media censorship would hinder democractic elections.
In a statement late on Friday, the Ministry of Information said all radio stations must be neutral in their coverage before the election and not carry reports on foreigners playing any role in the election. It was not clear if the directive was aimed at any individuals or monitoring groups.
The statement said stations must also suspend broadcasting Khmer-language programmes by foreign media.
Radio Free Asia spokesman John A. Estrella called the ban "the most sweeping and stunning frontal assault on media freedom in Cambodia in recent memory" and "a blatant strategy to silence the types of disparate and varied voices that characterise an open and free society".
"Unfettered access to diverse, accurate, election information provides the foundation for fair and free elections, and Prime Minister Hun Sen's decision represents a major regression in the march towards democracy and freedom in Cambodia," he said in a statement.
Two local stations, Women's Media Center FM 102 and Beehive FM 105, stopped re-broadcasting RFA and VOA reports on Friday.
Last year, the Cambodian government threatened legal action against RFA and VOA, accusing them of favouring opposition parties and promoting U.S. foreign policy.
Earlier this month a panel dominated by the CPP expelled 29 members of parliament because three parties had merged to form a new party to contest the election. It ruled that made them ineligible to continue to sit for the old parties.
The new formation, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), will be the main challenger to the CPP.
It has already accused the National Election Committee of bias, listing irregularities including names missing from electoral rolls, the presence of "ghost names" and the disruption of CNRP public events. It has threatened to pull out of the election if things get worse.