The Cambodian government has ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block the websites and social media accounts of nine domains of at least three news outlets, including the Cambodia Daily Khmer and Radio Free Asia, just a week before the uncontested national election on July 23, according to an official letter obtained by VOA Khmer.
The letter dated on July 12, issued by the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia, an entity under the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, stated that the government ordered ISPs to block the domains including the Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts of the Cambodia Daily Khmer and Radio Free Asia, which, like VOA, is an independent entity operating under the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Both distribute news in Khmer and English, and both are headquartered outside Cambodia.
The government also blocked the Twitter account and website of Komnotra, the new database of Voice of Democracy, which the government closed. Komnotra remains live on Facebook.
Komnotra was the newly launched public database that was run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), which ran the Voice of Democracy.
In the letter, the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia said the government was blocking the outlets because their news reporting could “make confusion, affect the government’s honor and prestige, and fail to fulfill the operating conditions of the Information Ministry.” The Information Ministry regulates news media outlets operating inside Cambodia. The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications is a separate entity.
The ISPs, according to the letter, were told to block access to those websites and social media accounts “immediately” and are required to the telecommunications regulator within seven days of the date of the letter.
The decision to block the outlets came after the proposal of the Information Ministry.
Meas Sophorn, the spokesperson for the Information Ministry confirmed to VOA Khmer that an order was issued by the Telecommunications Regulator to block the outlets. He added that the Kamnotra website operated as a media outlet but did not fulfill its obligations as a news agency that is required to register with the government.
Chea Vandeth, the minister of Post and Telecommunications, referred questions to the ministry spokesperson. So Visothy, the ministry spokesman, couldn’t be reached for comment.
RFA Chief Communication Officer Rohit Mahajan on Monday evening said, “RFA condemns the order from the government of Cambodia for internet service providers to block RFA content on online platforms — which is in clear violation of Cambodian law and an attempt to censor the free flow of information ahead of the July 23 election.
Access to timely, accurate news and information, which RFA’s programming and content provides to the Cambodian people on a daily basis, is essential in any democracy where the rule of law supports free speech and a free press. Despite these unfortunate efforts, RFA will keep striving to inform its audience in Cambodia with up-to-the-minute journalism during this critical time and beyond.”
Ith Sothoeuth, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which runs the Komnotra website, said that as of Monday, his team could not access the site via some internet providers.
“It is a regret that the Komnotra website is blocked since we aim to use this website to publish information which is issued by the state ministry or institutions,” he told VOA Khmer.
“It serves the public interest,” he said.
Sothoeuth’s organization launched Kamnotra at the end of June after the government revoked the license for its Khmer and English language news outlet, Voice of Democracy, in February.
Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), said the blocking of websites and social media just before the election will “affect access to diversified information and it impacts the rights to information.”
“It also impacts the rights to information and publishing information as stipulated in the article 41 of the constitution,” he told VOA Khmer. “It is a worry and I think there is no benefit to the government and the general public.”
It is the latest move to further restrict press freedom in a country that ranks 147th out of 180 countries, where 1 denotes the best media environment, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index.
In July 2018, the Cambodian government ordered ISPs to block at least 15 news websites of independent outlets, including Voice of America, for two days before and during the country’s election.
The rights to press freedom and freedom of expression in Cambodia have been deteriorating since the crackdown on the now-banned opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the closures of two main media outlets, the 25-year-old Cambodia Daily Khmer and the Phnom Penh bureau of Radio Free Asia in 2017 during the run-up to the 2018 national elections.
The radio licenses of all radio stations airing programs by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were revoked as well then. Most have been restored and several FM radio stations in Cambodia have carried VOA Khmer international news broadcasts twice-daily for the past two-plus years.
After the media crackdown in 2017, journalists who used to work for independent media have left their jobs.
In 2018, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper lost its editorial independence after a public relations company affiliated with the government assumed ownership and forced many of its professional journalists to resign and turn to freelance work. Many professional journalists who lost their jobs looked for opportunities in other sectors. Several of them are still living in limbo as asylum-seekers after fleeing the country for safety.