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Companies Asked ‘To Curb’ Critical Websites

Cambodians surf the Internet at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh.
Cambodians surf the Internet at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh.

Internet service providers have received an e-mail from an official at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications reminding them to “take action” against several anti-government websites.

The e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by VOA Khmer on Thursday, is a follow-up to a Feb. 10 meeting between the ministry and service provider representatives.

According to meeting minutes posted on the ministry website, Telecom Minister So Khun told the representatives that while the government does not have a policy requiring that websites be blocked, he “asked all operators to help curb some websites affecting Khmer morality and tradition and the government through the Internet.”

The e-mail, which was electronically signed by Sieng Sithy, deputy director of the ministry’s policy regulation, addresses service providers WiCam, Telesurf and Hello.

“We found that you are not yet taken an action, so please kindly take immediate
action,” he wrote, referencing the Feb. 10 meeting. “Here below [are the] websites.”

The e-mail then lists eight separate websites, belonging to the anti-government group KI Media, its mirror sites, and other websites traditionally critical of the current government. The e-mail also contains an attached document that lists the ISP providers in the country that have “blocked” or “unblocked” the requested sites.

“Again and again [sic], In case of not well cooperation is your own responsibility,” Sieng Sithy wrote.

Sieng Sithy also offers other service providers “my appreciation to you for your cooperation with MPTC.”

Contacted Thursday, Sieng Sithy declined to comment on the e-mail.

The minister, So Khun, told VOA Khmer his ministry has issued no orders to block sites.

“Maybe our technical staff who saw inappropriate content on those websites wrote to the ISPs themselves,” he said. “It’s a matter for the technical staff. Who knows?”

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment. However, he told the Phnom Penh Post on Thursday that an e-mail did not represent official government policy and he asked that the Telecom Ministry clarify the e-mail.

Cambodian Internet users have been complaining for weeks that they have been unable to access KI Media and other blogs, sometimes their own.

The government has strongly denied any policy or order to service providers requiring them to block any sites. In recent media statements, many service providers have likewise denied blocking websites.

Sok Channda, chief executive of the company that operates Angkornet and Mekongnet, told the Phnom Penh Post on Wednesday she had received the email from the ministry but not an official letter.

Nevertheless, Internet users trying to connect via various providers to KI Media and other sites have either found failure messages or been re-directed to other sites. Officials have blamed this on technical problems.

Critics say that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party controls much of the broadcast and print media in the country. Opposition editors and journalists have in recent years been jailed under defamation laws and many opposition-leaning newspapers have closed.

In December, the Phnom Penh court sentenced World Food Program staffer Seng Kunnaka to six months in jail on incitement charges, after he distributed a small number of copies of a print out from the KI Media website.

For the most part, though, the government has allowed free rein for Internet users. The number of Cambodians online has meanwhile begun to climb. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians are now online.

Heng Sokunthy, an Internet user and regular visitor to the KI Media site, said she was “strongly” affected by its recent failure to load.

“Although it contains some anti-government opinions, the site is a source of a great deal of Cambodia-related information,” she said.

The Telecom Ministry e-mail also comes as rights groups have begun to notice a decline in Internet freedoms in the country.

On Wednesday, Licadho issued a statement calling government censorship of websites “a significant milestone in the march toward a more oppressive media environment.”

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said Cambodia’s freedom of expression is “in crisis” and called on the government to stop attempting to block websites.

“The blockage will make people more stressful and tense and unhappy with the government, as it does not understand their will,” CCHR President Ou Virak told VOA Khmer Thursday, citing recent events in Tunisia and Egypt as examples. “I see it as a danger to the government in the future.”