About 200 bloggers from around Asia gathered over the weekend to take part in Blogfest Asia 2012 in Siem Reap, with Internet freedom at the top of their agenda.
The issue is a pressing one for many countries in the region.
In September, Vietnam imprisoned three bloggers, ostensibly for writing about sensitive political issues, and an opposition politician and blogger in Malaysia was sentenced in August to three months in prison for criticizing the country’s information minister.
But in Cambodia’s nascent blogosphere, direct criticism of the government is scarce and self-censorship is widespread.
“There’re not many bloggers writing about social issues or politics,” said Sopheap Chak, a blogger and project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“This is probably self-censorship because you can see all of the cases of harassment of journalists offline.” In the past two months, there have been multiple cases of critical voices in the media being silenced.
In September, journalist Hang Serei Odom was killed just days after publishing an article that exposed links between a high-level military official and the illegal logging trade in Ratanakkiri province.
Independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was sentenced last month to 20 years in prison for allegedly leading a secession movement in Kratie province, but rights groups have said the charges are trumped up and meant to silence one of the Cambodian media’s few critical voices.
“Some journalists have been killed, and so bloggers are afraid to voice their opinions,” said Sun Narin, a blogger and reporter for Voice of Democracy.
“In a blog, [the government] can track down the name of the writer, so I’m still afraid,” he said.
Ou Virak, president of the CCHR, said that this fear of being singled out by the government is suppressing critical voices online. “There is a sense that you can be easily targeted,” he said.
“But as more people join the online movement, they will become more comfortable and start to express their opinions on social and even political matters,” Mr. Virak added.
According to Kounila Keo, a blogger and freelance journalist, those in attendance at the Blogfest 2012 conference again raised concerns over the impact of the country’s first proposed anti-cybercrime law.
In a statement posted to the Press and Quick Reaction Unit’s website in May, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, speaking about the anti-cybercrime law with European Union Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain, was quoted as saying: “People use modern technology to spread false information, so we need a law to regulate them.”
Human rights groups have complained that the law may give the government the scope to shut down websites critical of the ruling party.
“When young people become vocal, that is what the government is scared of,” said Ms. Keo. “So I think the government is trying to curb that threat before it happens.”
However, Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that the government has no plans to crack down on critical voices when the anti-cybercrime law, which he said is still in the drafting stage, is implemented.
“The cybercrime law is not for restriction of the Internet but to prevent crime. We work to protect data, not to be able to shut down websites,” he said.
Access is already restricted in Cambodia to a number of websites that post highly critical content about the ruling CPP, including the KI-Media and Khmerization blogs.
The government, however, has continually denied involvement in blocking them despite emails obtained by numerous media outlets in February 2011 that revealed a secret government policy to pressure ISPs to deny access to specific websites affiliated with the political opposition.