Rights advocates yesterday criticized the government’s apparent collusion with some Internet providers to block websites critical of the government, saying that it violated constitutional rights and hastened the decline of freedom of speech in Cambodia.
The criticism comes after e-mails surfaced this week from a Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications official to Cambodia’s largest Internet service providers, requesting that they block access to certain opposition websites.
While Telecommunications Minister So Khun has denied knowing about the e-mails, the websites, which include the satire and news aggregation blog KI-Media, are no longer accessible to Cambodians on certain networks.
“By stifling the online publication, Cambodia’s press freedom is on the decline,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies. “It’s a serious issue, because Cambodia is bound by international convention on the press freedoms and freedom of expression, as stipulated in the Cambodia constitution article 41.”
Given that about 99 percent of Cambodians do have not access to the Internet, and fewer can read English, he said he doubted the blocked sites could seriously affect public opinion, calling the blocking “useless.”
In addition to largely English-language commentary and links to news articles, KI-Media frequently posts caricatures of CPP officials, labeling them traitors or depicting them in insulting positions. Internet providers have not admitted to blocking the websites, though some admit to having received the ministry’s e-mails.
Mr Chhean Nariddh noted that while some of the content on the blocked sites was below professional standards and that many of the accusations posted did not meet ethical standards, they still gave Cambodians a chance to express themselves.
“By trying to shut down those websites, people will try to find out what it is all about, I think what the government is trying to do will receive a negative result,” he said.
Cambodia already has a narrow range of venues for dissent, as most TV and radio stations are aligned with the ruling party, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
“This affects the freedom of the expression and access to the media. There should be balance. There should be different voice and opinions,” he said. “This is not a good sign.”
He added that it did not matter if the order came from high-ranking officials or not, adding that the government often used informal means such as telephone calls to restrict political speech without leaving evidence.
“They always to avoid or try to ignore the official responsibility,” he said.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho, wrote in an e-mail that “if the present tendency to block controversial critical websites is verified, it would be a disturbing trend showing the radicalization of censorship, regarding Internet, which up to now was free. It would also relate to a political power unwilling to accept public critics.”
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment.
Mr Khun yesterday defended the government’s actions, saying he neither issued nor received a directive to contact the Internet providers, who may have acted on their own, he said. He said he was not aware that a ministry worker may have contacted ISPs about blocking the sites.
“You can ask him why he sent. I don’t know, because I am not in Phnom Penh,” he said, later adding, “I never blocked any websites.”
The two e-mails, dated Feb 9 and 11, were sent from the Yahoo account of Sieng Sithy, deputy director of the ministry’s directorate of telecommunications policy regulation. He has denied sending the e-mails, but has become a target of ridicule on some opposition websites, including KI-Media.
The first e-mail states, “[P]lease take an action” on several websites featuring anti-government content.
A second e-mail sent two days later thanked the companies for their “cooperation” and chided three-WiCam, TeleSurf and Hello-for “not yet [taking] an action.”
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said Cambodia must learn lessons from repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, which fueled anger among the public by putting restrictions on the Internet.
She called for the government workers responsible for the e-mails to be held accountable and defended the websites, saying they provided valuable information on subjects like the filling in of Boeng Kak lake.
“It is a government that is very paranoid. It shows all sign of paranoia. It shows all signs of wanting to cover information that can be harmful to some high-ranking officials,” she said.
Still, it’s unclear how the government will handle the case going forward. Mr Chhean Narridh predicted it would do nothing.
“A common tactic by the government, which they have used in the past, is to respond by not responding and let the situation fade away from the public side,” he said.