With a national election coming up, Cambodia’s informational authorities have kept an especially close eye on the unruly gardens of the Internet.
On Monday, ahead of 23 July’s balloting, authorities took steps to nip in the bud Kamnotra, an independent database of public information and the latest initiative of non-governmental organisation Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM). The group launched the online tool less than a month ago to make official data more easily accessible in both English and Khmer languages and partially fill the void left earlier this year by the government-ordered closure of its news outlet, Voice of Democracy (VOD).
The donor-funded media centre provides media trainings to citizen journalists, but its primary cause was maintaining the Khmer and English-language versions of VOD. The publication, which began as a radio station, closely followed stories of public corruption and had long been a thorn in the side of the Cambodian government. Prime Minister Hun Sen personally ordered the outlet closed in February.
On Monday, authorities continued that thread and pushed internet service providers to block the websites and social media accounts affiliated with Kamnotra – as well as the already banished news outlets The Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia.
Both of the latter outlets were targets of the broader 2017 government crackdowns that centred on the forcible dissolution of the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Though locally shuttered, the news outlets have continued to publish reports about the country’s current affairs.
Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) hold virtually full control of every state mechanism and are all but guaranteed to win the coming election by a landslide. But the CPP has left nothing to chance – if not an accurate reflection of public interest, the results will set the stage for the expected formation of a new government in August. After nearly four decades as prime minister, the 70-year-old Hun Sen will pass near-absolute power to his eldest son, military commander Hun Manet.
The last national election of 2018 took place amidst the sweeping crackdown on the CNRP, a full-scale legal conflict. This time around, the opposition Candlelight Party was rejected in May from the ballot through mostly bloodless bureaucratic measures. Though VOD’s closure made international headlines, authorities managed to strike Kamnotra from the free Cambodian Internet with a one-page order issued Monday by the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia stating the database and the other included sites had “disseminated information causing confusion, undermining the honour and the prestige of the royal government”.
The document ordered the sites to be blocked within seven days, which would likely render them largely unavailable for the election.
“I can not tell what the government is thinking. We intended for Kamnotra to be a public database of already publicly available information,” said Ith Sothoeuth, CCIM’s media director. “But maybe the website contains information that the government thinks is not to their benefit.”
The run-up to the officially designated three-week campaign season had already been littered with crackdowns, from the closure of VOD in February and the harsh sentencing of a former opposition leader in March, to the disqualification of Candlelight, the main opposition party, in May. CCIM had attempted to continue its mission in some form through Kamnotra, but this swiftly joined the growing list.
“The decision to block Kamnotra’s website less than one month after its launch constitutes the latest example of a series of oppressive decisions that severely threatens the freedom of expression in Cambodia,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Such decisions threaten democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia especially during the elections, a critical time for individuals to cast their vote and freely choose their representatives.”
Kamnotra, or “The Record” in Khmer, launched two databases in June: “The Gazetteer” and “In Dispute”. The first indexed laws and subdecrees published by the government’s Royal Gazette, while the second compiled years of reporting on land disputes in order to track conflicts.
“We digitised documents so everyone could access it, but simply making the database, it is not very useful,” Sothoeuth said. “We also created explainers, factsheets and analysis to make these dense documents easily understandable.”
This work went unhindered for less than a month.
“Depriving individuals of access to vital information to understand the electoral process, constitutes a serious limitation of their fundamental rights,” Sopheap said. “Without access to reliable information, it is challenging for Cambodian citizens to eloquently exercise their right to vote and elect political office holders.”
Meas Sophorn, spokesman for the Ministry of Information, said Kamnotra publishes content in the “form of news articles” which the website was not allowed to do for a reason he did not explain. He continued that the independent centre should “know very clearly how to be a legal media outlet” in a nod toward VOD.
He did not respond to Globe’s follow-up inquiries about if the decision to ban Kamnotra could be reviewed or contested. Based on precedent, however, the reversal of the decision seems unlikely – at a World Press Freedom Day event in May, Sophorn dashed hopes for VOD’s reopening.
Sothoeuth rebuffed the claim that Kamnotra was publishing news articles and said the ministry had given no prior warning before ordering it blocked.
“Our team will continue working as usual for now, updating the website. Even though Kamnotra cannot be accessed now, hopefully it will be accessible later. People can still access the site through other means,” he said. “Tools like Kamnotra are very important, especially before elections. People need to have access to these documents and data to make informed decisions.”
Recent updates to the database included summaries on title promotions granted to family members of Hun Sen; minor political parties failing to register poll agents; and land concessions given to tycoons with ties to the prime minister.
The Cambodian government has steadily worked to assert more control over the Kingdom’s digital landscape with plans for a National Internet Gateway, which would route the country’s internet traffic through a single, government-run portal. Though long delayed, such infrastructure would theoretically enhance the state’s ability to gather user data, block websites and disconnect Internet access at will.
The expected adoption of the Law on Access to Information, which was meant to be introduced in 2021, has also been slow to come together.
Kamnotra and the other blocked sites are still mostly accessible through a virtual private network, or VPN, which essentially hides a user’s browsing history and location. The software to create these private networks, however, often has to be downloaded separately and at an expense. The encryption process run by a VPN also requires more internet bandwidth, which can slow websites.
“I can not say what we are going to do next after the elections. From our side, we made our intentions clear that it was a database. We wanted everyone to have access to publicly available data,” Sothoeuth said. “Perhaps it is not strange that we see things differently than the government. Hopefully we will have a common understanding in the future.”