Despite fears that a warning to users of social media and Internet blogs will dampen free speech, the head of National Election Committee (NEC) has insisted the intention was not to limit expression ahead of July’s national election.
The NEC last week issued a statement requesting that bloggers and users of various social media “do not provide wrong information about the election (especially the date of the election), create fear, confusion or a loss of confidence in the secrecy of the vote.”
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said yesterday that the statement was not a threat to people speaking openly, but that the committee would act against errant users.
“When we have a complaint, we will take legal action,” he said, explaining that the election law also applies to social media users.
He cited Article 124 of the law, which states that voters or candidates can be removed from the voter list, have their candidacy for election canceled and be fined up to 25 million riel, or about $6,250, for disrupting the electoral process.
“As we know, many people right now are using social media and especially the youth. We want them to share the right information about the election,” Mr. Nytha said.
“They have a right to talk about politics or criticize the NEC, we just don’t want them to share the wrong information, or create fear and confusion that will affect the election.”
The warning comes as an estimated 700,000 Cambodians are now on the social network Facebook, and with social media playing a greater role than ever before in a Cambodian national election.
Moeun Tola, who heads the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center and regularly posts about politics on Facebook, said the message could make Cambodians feel less free to share information about the elections online.
“I think there are no grounds, no strong reason for them to tell people how to express their opinion. They should be encouraging people to use social media,” he said. “Some people might feel scared or afraid about [the NEC’s warning].”
Mr. Tola said Cambodians had been increasingly taking to social media to talk politics and discuss the shortcomings of the government. “Only the bad leaders would be worried about social media,” he added.
Ou Ritthy, who blogs and posts about politics on social networks including Facebook and Twitter, said that the warning was unnecessary, since social media regulates itself, with instant feedback and comments from other users quickly correcting misinformation.
“NEC’s message is more or less affect[ing] freedom of expression of social media users…causing self-censorship,” Mr. Ritthy said in a message via Twitter.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in a message via Facebook that he supported the NEC’s warning. “Asking is not imposing. And asking not to create fear for the voters is the right thing to do,” he said.
President of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia Hang Puthea also said the NEC was right to encourage caution on social media. “Relating to the use of social media, users should post the truth,” Mr. Puthea said. “Facebook has two faces—it provides full information, but also sometimes it causes problems.”