Digital democracy emerging in Cambodia
By Chak Sopheap, Published on UPI Asia online
November 11, 2009
Niigata, Japan — Press freedom in Cambodia has gradually declined from “partly free” in 2008 to “no freedom” in 2009. But the same cannot be said if the medium of publication is the Internet. Rather, online press freedom is emerging as the new “digital democracy” in the country.
Compared to other media channels, news online and personal blogs are apparently enjoying more freedom and independence from government censorship and restrictions. A number of websites and blogs are disseminating news, entertaining the public, and mainly serving as a platform for political, economic and social discussions.
There are also an increasing number of young people in Cambodia, both male and female, who have joined the Internet bandwagon. While they come from different institutions with varying backgrounds, surfing the Internet for information, interacting on online forums, joining online social networks and creating their own blogs are reportedly their prime online activities. This emerging trend can bring some positive development in Cambodia.
First, it can promote gender equality, as many female Internet users indulge in online chats, social networks and blogs. Second, access to many news sources can enable people to increase their knowledge and enhance creativity. Third, it can increase the people’s awareness of global developments and make them better prepared to accept or critique changes in their own country that may impact their lives.
But the government’s philosophy of not paying much attention or restricting online access stems from the fact that Internet penetration is very low in Cambodia. As per 2007 statistics, only an estimated 0.3 percent of the population is connected to the Internet. This is due to the high cost of Internet connections as well as computer hardware and software that not many can afford. Besides, the level of computer literacy is also very low.
So Internet censorship by the government is minimal, as Cambodia’s Internet community is relatively very small and spending on technology does not benefit the government or the majority of the population. Besides, the current level of Cambodia’s technological knowledge is still limited.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently rejected a proposal by a national commission to tax radio and TV users, which could prevent people from accessing the news. The government has also introduced its own website, with the aim of building a public service and disseminating information and news related to activities of government institutions. This constructive action reveals government efforts to facilitate and encourage people to access the media.
However, there have been crackdowns on websites in the past that have spoken against the government or revealed family information and business associations of Hun Sen and his family members. Websites and blogs showing pornography were also pulled down.
Although Kieu Kanharith, Cambodia’s minister of information, said that the government did not crack down on websites, there is a tendency to formulate laws to restrict websites that the government deems unfit.
The government is now working on a draft law on “broadcasting services used via electronic systems,” which intends to control broadcasting of audiovisual data, games, entertainment and online advertisement to conform to morality rules. Although Kieu declared that the draft law would not apply to news websites, it is doubtful that would happen, as the government in all likelihood would censor those news sites that it feels harm its political agenda.
With the government encouraging e-government and e-communication on the Internet, there is hope that there will not be another “great firewall of Cambodia” like China has for filtering Internet content, although the same is practiced by neighboring countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
Should that be the case, the above-mentioned motivations are pointless and mean that Cambodia’s democratic system is not only gradually deteriorating but the country is beginning to lag behind other advanced countries in technology and development.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)