Electric Bills Come With Threat: No Online Gripes

Customers of state power provider Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) may get an added shock when they open their bills this month.

Along with their monthly total, customers in the capital and four provinces will receive a warning that they could end of up in court if they use their Facebook accounts to make “irresponsible” complaints that affect the company’s “honor.”

Boys walk past the Electricite du Cambodge branch in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Boys walk past the Electricite du Cambodge branch in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The threat comes amid the government’s growing sensitivity to online criticism, which has landed students and lawmakers alike in prison over the past year.

Using its own Facebook account last Friday, EdC posted a sample bill, dated July 27, with the new warning.

“If the customer does not understand or wants to complain about this bill, please go directly to the responsible agent of the branch,” it says. “Electricite du Cambodge reserves the right not to solve problems posted on Facebook. Persons who make irresponsible posts that affect the honor of EdC will face existing and relevant laws.”

The EdC post also points out another novel feature of the new bills: a one-year history of the customer’s electricity use, intended to help them understand the latest charge.

The utility says customers will begin receiving the new bills in Phnom Penh and four provinces: Battambang, Kandal, Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk. Other provinces may may be added in later.

The post offers no explanation of the legal warning. Following a wave of customer complaints over seemingly inexplicable increases in their bills last year, however, Energy Minister Suy Sem publicly accused critics of mounting a “movement” to “destroy” his agency.

Officials at EdC’s Phnom Penh headquarters declined to discuss the changes with a reporter on Thursday. Horn Vathna, who runs the provider’s information and customer service office, asked that any questions be put in writing.

Em Vannak, who delivers bills to EdC customers in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Krom commune, said on Thursday that he liked the changes, which he first noticed last week.

He said no one had explained the reasons for the changes to him, but that he guessed they were meant to save EdC staff from wasting time.

“If they post on Facebook, EdC will waste time finding the people who posted their complaints,” he said. “If people have any concerns about their meters, they can just come directly to the branch.”

EdC did not explain what laws customers could run afoul of, either, with their criticism.

But so far as defamation is concerned, they could—legally—still take their complaints to Facebook as long as the complaints are true, said Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights lawyer.

“If the complaint is not true, we can face defamation,” he said. “If true, it’s not a crime because it’s a fact. Defamation is only a crime if you spread fake facts.”

“The people must know how to be responsible on Facebook,” he added.

At the same time, Mr. Sam Oeun added, EdC should be careful not to start suing people for online complaints.

Before they file a court complaint, “they should consult with their lawyers to make sure it is not true,” he said.

Rights groups have accused the government and courts of applying an overly broad definition of defamation in cases against critics of the ruling CPP.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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