Though they have denied it for weeks, Cambodia’s largest Internet service providers have apparently colluded with the government in censoring the Internet for political reasons. Via e-mail and telephone, the government has monitored companies’ compliance and established contact with mid-level and executive employees who are charged with denying users access to opposition-linked content on the Web, according to government documents.
Though So Khun, minister of Posts and Telecommunications, has denied the existence of any official censorship policy, which would appear to violate the constitution and could be unlawful, he appeared to soften his position yesterday, saying ISPs were themselves permitted to censor objectionable content.
E-mails received yesterday appear to reveal the existence of a strongly worded government request, if not a directive, to deny access to specific websites affiliated with the political opposition.
An official at the Telecommunications Ministry asked Feb 9 that Internet companies “[p]lease take an action” on several websites featuring anti-government matter.
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.”
The two e-mails were both sent from an account belonging to Sieng Sithy, deputy director of the ministry’s directorate of telecommunications policy regulation.
The Feb 9 message referred to telephone conversations and was sent to representatives of Ezecom, Metfone, Citylink, Digi, AngkorNet, WiCam, TC, Camnet, Online and Camintel.
Attached to the message was a spreadsheet listing nine of the companies and describing whether eight opposition-leaning websites could be viewed using their services.
The listed sites were KI Media and several of its mirror sites, as well as Khmerization, Sacravatoons and other political cartoon websites.
All the websites were inaccessible on only one Internet provider, Ezecom, earning it the status “OK,” according to the spreadsheet. Both e-mails were also sent to the company’s CEO, Paul Blanche-Horgan, who had previously denied that his company was actively blocking access to websites.
Contacted yesterday he said, “Can’t hear you,” and hung up. Subsequent calls went unanswered.
Attached to the second e-mail was chart listing 12 companies recording whether they have blocked access to KI Media. Seven of the 12 had, according to the chart.
Though listed as the e-mail’s sender, Mr Sithy said he knew nothing when contacted yesterday.
“I don’t know about this e-mail,” he told a reporter before hanging up. “I don’t know where they got it from.”
Mr Khun, the telecoms minister, reiterated yesterday that the ministry never directly ordered ISPs to block access to websites.
When confronted with the e-mails, Mr Khun simply said ISPs can block pages that insult “government leaders,” the King or offend the morality of Cambodians.
“The ministry has no policy to close the websites, but it depends on the technician. ISPs have the right to close it for a period or forever if any website posts pictures or something affecting morality,” he said.
A senior employee at an Internet provider, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to company policy, said Internet providers met last week with Mr Khun who addressed blocking websites. Mr Khun did not name the pages, the official said.
“To be fair, he did not mention anti-government websites. He was asking for cooperation on monitoring and blocking of websites that affect the culture of Cambodia in a negative way, such as pornography,” the employee said.
It was not until Feb 11 that the employee’s company received an e-mail thanking companies for cooperating on the blocking of the opposition websites.
The employee’s company did not comply because it did not receive a formal request but would block the sites if formally asked, the official said. Though the government has formally requested that Internet providers certain pornography websites in the past, he said this was the first case he was aware of in which they had addressed the blockage of political websites, he said.
On Wednesday, the human rights group Licadho condemned the intermittent censorship of websites in Cambodia and called for the government as well as ISPs involved with the blackouts to stop.
“Until now, Cambodia’s Internet environment had been noticeably freer than in neighboring countries,” Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said in a statement.
Bun Heang Ung, the Khmer-Australian artist who operates the political cartoon blog Sacravatoons, said he was aware his page had been blocked but felt the efforts to silence critical websites would only backfire.
“In my opinion, the action is just like stopping the water current from a fall. This only reveals how the genuine democracy and freedom of expression in Cambodia have been denied,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “They try to forget that is the new world of the Internet Revolution. […] Tunisia & Egypt for the start and it will go everywhere in the world.”
(Reporting by Chhorn Chansy, Frank Radosevich and Tim Sturrock)