WASHINGTON DC - The US-based watchdog Freedom House has rated Cambodia’s Internet freedom “partly free,” with limited access for some users, the closing of at least three popular political blogs and the closure of some Internet cafes in recent years.
Government officials say the rating is unfair, claiming that access to the Internet is free and open, but the report comes amid rising claims of stricter clampdowns, not just on the Internet, but on civil society as a whole.
However, Madeline Earp, a researcher for Freedom House, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia can do better.
“There are troubling signs that it may be restricting some criticisms online, particularly blogs that are hosted overseas,” she said.
Ek Tha, a government spokesman, said the report did not reflect the true Internet freedoms for Cambodians.
“They can access the Internet any time, at coffee shops, in public institutions, at companies, at their homes,” he said. “So Cambodia has full freedom of the press and freedom of the Internet.”
Ny Chakriya, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, told VOA Khmer that Cambodians are moving closer towards using the Internet as a tool for political organizing. But if the government tries to shut down its use, he said, “Cambodia is going to be declining in its record of freedom of expression.”
The Freedom House report comes at a time when experts and rights workers in Cambodia say civil society as a whole is also under duress from government officials.
“Sometime they say we have a key role and are their mirror,” Koul Panha, who oversees an election-monitoring group called Comfrel, said of the government. “But sometimes they pressure, intimidate civil society, and charge us as opposition supporters.”
The ruling party is often not happy with rights organizations and other civic groups, he said, because they point out flaws in governance. But these groups are not challenging parties for political power, so they should not be excluded from policy discussions, he said.
Am Sam Ath, chief investigator for the rights group Licadho, agreed. Civil society is not the opposition, he said. Rather, its groups work through a code of ethics and professionalism that helps develop the country.
But whether its Internet freedoms, or general freedoms for civil society, many governments around the world continue to take restrictive stances, experts said recently at a Washington symposium.
Often, civil society is attacked or threatened, said Margaret Sekaggya, the UN’s special envoy for human rights in Uganda. “And their work is criminalized or politicized, so you find these instances that the space is shrinking, and the environment is very difficult for them to operate.”
Tad Stanhke, policy director at Human Rights First, said authoritarian governments the world over use laws to suppress civil society. This is happening with increasing frequency, and it includes crackdowns on civic groups, as well as Internet freedoms, he said. These things are often tied together, he said.
“Thus, the reactions from the governments is to crack down on the use of the Internet, to be able to increase their surveillance of groups and others on the Internet, and ultimately to prosecute and persecute defenders and activists,” he said.
Because of this, countries like the United States and other democracies need to work harder to protect groups from such crackdowns, said David Kramer, president of Freedom House. “We all need to do a better job in this,” he said. “This is a call for action.”
The UN’s Sekaggya said the international community must protect countries, even if that means restricting foreign funding. However, she said, there are more “innovative ways” that the international community can help local groups—including funding them directly.
Sarah Mendelson, deputy assistant administrator for USAID, told the symposium that the US does not ignore crackdowns on civic groups. US Embassies around the world have discussions with such groups, and the US provides millions of dollars in project funding for them, she said.
“Because civil society is a critical part of achieving any development goals that we’re working toward,” she said. “It’s not just about the government, it’s about citizens, it’s about civil society. Having civil society partners be active and vibrant is critical to achieving those goals.”