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As the Internet Raises Civic Voices In Cambodia, a Struggle Brews Over Net Control

BY Faine Greenwood | Wednesday, March 27 2013

Participants at BarCamp Angkor, February 2013 (credit: Faine Greenwood)

Earlier this March, photos and video began to spread depicting a hit-and-run crash in the bustling Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, that killed three children and injured eight more people.

Fearing death or injury at the hands of angry onlookers, the Phnom Penh Post reports, drivers who get into accidents often speed away. It's a vicious cycle: Onlookers don't trust authorities to deliver justice, so they take matters into their own hands. Afraid of what vigilantes might do, drivers leave rather than give them — or police — a chance. But this crash was different.

This small state in Southeast Asia is one of the first countries where mobile phones outnumber landlines. Its citizens are obsessed with Facebook. So when onlookers reached for phones rather than impromptu weapons, different methods yielded different results. The evidence went viral, making it clear that Cambodians were watching the case. And the suspect — a medical student from a family with money — was swiftly charged with committing a fatal hit-and-run. In a country where people in positions of power have reportedly avoided consequences in similar cases more than once, that's a head-turning development.

Citizen media, spread through the Internet, are becoming increasingly important in Cambodian civil society. But as people begin to make use of the newfound ease with which they can find and spread information, activists worry that the government is preparing a strategy to reinstitute social control. Officials in Cambodia, a relatively liberal state for the region, are eager to court foreign investment. They recognize the utility of the Internet for development and international commerce. And they also appear to see the threat too-free access to information might pose to unchecked government power.

Cambodia today is a case study in how government and civil society wrestle for leverage in the Internet-age developing world.

"They will pay attention"

"In such cases as the hit and run case, you'll see a lot of impact," says Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "Because it is not a principle of human rights or on policy, it's one that people can really understand. So they will pay attention, and they will talk about it online — and more importantly, they will talk about it offline."

By the time the Phnom Penh Post got to the story, the newspaper had countless social media posts to justify its coverage. That's because for now, online media doesn't face the same restrictions as traditional press. The Cambodian government keeps a watchful eye on the media, particularly television and radio, which are by far the most popular sources of information. The ruling Cambodian People's Party either owns or controls almost all of the television stations, many radio stations, and some of the leading newspapers. Media outlets that do not toe the line stand to lose their operator's license. This provides management with a tangible incentive for keeping journalists in check. Journalists themselves readily self-censor, well aware of where the lines are drawn and the possible, sometimes fatal penalties for crossing them. (As one of Cambodia's newspapers, which are hard to find outside the capital, and especially as an English-language newspaper, the Post is in a class of media that's less interesting to government monitors.)

When journalists don't do this, they can face jail time or worse. Last year, Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando was accused of planning to secede from the government and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Sonando's time was later reduced to a five-year suspended sentence, and he was released after serving 8 months in jail.

At least for now, Internet media has been an escape valve for stories that would otherwise have been kept quiet.

"News has been all over the Internet — car accidents, worker strikes, protesting," says Ngeth Moses, communications coordinator at Phnom Penh's Community Legal Education Center of Cambodia's Internet culture. "It's something that they don't see on traditional media like TV [or] Radio, which is controlled by the government."

The potential reach of online media is likely to grow. Cambodia's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications estimated recently that there were 2.5 million Internet users out of a population of over 14 million as of September 2012. Meanwhile, Facebook is popular and growing, with estimating about 739,040 users. These are not staggering numbers, but represent a significant increase from just a few years ago.

"The impact of the Internet is huge and already here," said Virak, the human-rights advocate. He noted that as newspapers go online, more people are able to access their less controlled viewpoints. "There's more people getting their news from the Internet than from newspapers, so that's changing."

But as Cambodians move online for news, so are the consequences of reporting things that are inconvenient for the government.

The "common sense" of self-censorship

Cambodian blogger Kounila Keo has said that the consequences for journalists who cross the government can be dire. It's not at that level yet for Internet media, but some observers worry that more censorship will come in time.

"Some people call it 'self censorship,'" Keo said. "Others call it 'common sense.'"

Online commentators have, so far, only come in for harassment.

In September 2012, actress and TV personality Doung Zorida was accused of defamation and ordered to pay a fine for posting negative comments about a colleague on Facebook.

And then in January 2013, teacher Phel Phearun complained on Facebook that police had unfairly impounded his motorcycle, igniting a spirited discussion about corrupt policing. Much to Phearun's surprise, he was summoned by police for questioning on February 26, a month after the original Facebook posting. Police complained Phearun's statement "defamed" them.

Phearun told me he was worried about his March court date, but he wasn't going to let it silence him. "I post what is the truth. If it is the truth, I will post it as usual," he said.

Observers aren't all of one mind as to why these dust-ups have been minor so far. Blogger Chak Sopheap says it's because online media is relatively new.

"Compared to old media in Cambodia, new media such as online news, social networks and personal blogs currently enjoy more freedom and independence from government censorship and restrictions," said Sopheap.

"This may be largely because, with such low Internet penetration, the Royal Government of Cambodia has yet to recognize the Internet as a significant threat," she mused.

Phatry Derek Pan, chief executive officer and co-founder of, counters that it's actually largely because the vast majority of Khmer bloggers tend to avoid posting inflammatory material for the same reasons that worry their mainstream media colleagues.

"I can't identify anyone or any organization within Cambodian borders willing to 'push the button,'" Pan told techPresident. "I don't think it's an issue of fear, but more because there is no real desire to disrupt the stability and progress that Cambodia is experiencing."

The Cambodian government may be about to raise the stakes. Officials say they are preparing a "cyber-law" to crack down on online crimes. It is, they say, an effort to prolong a boom that has seen their country go from genocide and civil war to relative stability and growing economic prosperity in only a few decades. Activists fear that the law, rumored to be in the drafting process at the Ministry of Telecommunications and Post but largely kept concealed from the public, will be used to suppress dissent.

Fighting cybercrime, or regulating speech?

"I don't think the government is going to restrict digital freedom," said Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan, noting the government planned to use the European Union's cyber law as a template.

"The Internet is part of the growth of the Cambodian economy," added Siphan. He said the purpose of the law would be in part to "protect formal, private and copy-righted data from hacking, or the destruction of users’ formal data, especially banks and related institutions."

Activists are skeptical.

"Is this just another ploy to try and gag free expression of views that run contrary to the government’s preferred narrative?" said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "As always in Cambodia, the devil is in the details, and so let’s see what Phay Siphan wants to propose."

This isn't the first time free-speech advocates have tangled with Cambodian officials over policy.

In December, authorities issued a December 2012 circular stating that all Internet cafes operating within 500 meters of schools or educational institutions in Phnom Penh would have to close, effectively shuttering every such business in the city. Human rights advocates called it a transparent attack on access to independent Internet media.

A mapping website, UrbanVoice, quickly jumped into the fray, putting out a call to the public to mark local Internet cafes on a map. Soon after, the government backed away from the idea.

"Unfortunately, we have seen measures taken in neighboring countries to censor and limit access to the Internet, and we are concerned any 'Cyber Law' will be used similarly in Cambodia," said Nora Lindstrom, a spokesperson for Urban Voice.

The unanswered question now is whether Cambodian officials will seek to control access to information on the Internet without sacrificing the foreign investment and attention that has come with allowing people to get online.

The Internet's role in economic growth

In February BarCamp Angkor, an international "unconference" for technology geeks, was held in Siem Reap and attracted well over 700 registered participants — 40 percent of whom were women. This was the largest crowd since the first Cambodian BarCamp gathering in 2008. (USAID, the American development agency, was an official partner.)

Open Development Cambodia, an East West Management Institute project, collects and curates open information about development from numerous sources, including newspapers, the government, and NGOs. Sponsored by USAID, the Open Society Foundation, online foundation Spyder, and others, the site is the first such project in Cambodia, and is on track to becoming a local nonprofit.

"What's unusual is that ODC — even unusual among open data sites in the world — is that it's the first attempt to build a development portrait using data," noted ODC project manager Terry Parnell, emphasizing ODC's neutral stance and focus on provoking dialogue about development.

There might be a message in there: if the Cambodian government is open and transparent to development agencies and funders, the foreign investment will keep coming, and so will the help in kickstarting an Internet-centric tech sector — no doubt attractive because Internet commerce has low barriers to entry and few start-up costs.

That, at least, is what the human rights advocate Phil Robertson is hoping for.

Robertson remarked that the international community — especially donors — must be "totally uncompromising in their determination to protect freedom of expression on the Internet in Cambodia. If the international community stands up, the bloggers and activists online will be fine."

It will soon become clearer whether the Cambodian web's future more closely resembles Robertson's dream of a broad civic conversation, or if the upcoming "cyber law" creates a future less like the EU and more like Russia or China, where close monitoring, technology-enabled censorship, and physical violence are used to keep state control.

With parliamentary elections coming in July, the stakes are also high for elected officials seeking re-election.

Until the results of those two processes become clear, all observers can do is speculate. Chak Sopheap, the blogger, argues that there will soon be too many people using the Internet for the government to restrict access.

"I am still optimistic on the future of the Cambodian Internet as more and more are surfing for public interest, not just for personal entertainment as when it started," said Sopheap. "Those passionate will be the key agent to ensure that Internet freedom and access is guaranteed."

Faine Greenwood is an American freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh.

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