The Cambodian government has ordered internet service providers (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.
An official Ministry of Information memo, obtained by VOA, orders the ISPs to block Voice of America’s Khmer service, Radio Free Asia’s Khmer service, Voice of Democracy, Vayo FM Radio, Monorom.info, and the news site of the Independent Network for Social Justice on July 28 and 29 – the day of the election.
Phos Sovann, chief of the Information Ministry’s general department of information and broadcasting, confirmed the list of at least 15 websites had been ordered blocked.
“Frankly speaking, we cannot control the concerned media outlets. That’s it,” Sovann told VOA Khmer on Saturday.
“Cambodian laws do not allow any kind of broadcasting on these two days including the White Day [and the Election Day],” he said.
Cambodia’s electoral law imposes a “White Day” in which parties are forbidden from campaigning during the 24 hours before the ballot. It apparently places no restriction on the media.
Oops, as you can see, this is not what we wanted to show you! This URL has been sent to our support web team to the can look into it immediately. Our apologies.
Please use Search above to see if you can find it elsewhere
Asked why these specific websites were selected for the blockage and not other, pro-government sites, Sovann said the content published and broadcast by those outlets “concerned the obstructions as stated in the election law”.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only viable opposition to the ruling party, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government and has called on voters to boycott the election, which it says is consequently a “sham”.
The government and the National Election Committee have argued this amounts to an obstruction of voters under the country’s election law in an interpretation rights groups have said is ridiculous. Cambodia does not enforce mandatory voting.
Cnrp7.org, Khmerpolitical.com, Khmersharingnews.com, Camnews.com, Stubes.info, Pinterest.de, Vithyu.com, Freecambodia.org, and Akppure.com –- most of which regularly relay the news contents and radio programs from the main news sites above -- round out the list of blocked sites.
Sovann said the blocked outlets were citing sources who disrupted the election and were “abroad” – referring to CNRP members who have fled into exile.
Cambodian netizens began complaining on social media on Thursday night that they had lost access to numerous news websites that they routinely accessed, including RFA and VOA.
Voice of Democracy’s media director Nop Vy confirmed that his website had been blocked since Friday.
“The independent media website block is an action to control all reporting about the election. It affects access to information about the election,” Nop Vy said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, expressed “regrets” about the independent media blackout.
“Ahead of the election, we want the public to access comprehensive information about the election process, policies of each party, and characteristics of party candidates,” he said.
Without the CNRP to compete, which almost defeated the government at the last national election and won close to half the popular vote in last year’s commune election, the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party is expected to win in a landslide on Sunday.
“We want our election environment to be calm so that the people are rightfully able to decide without consuming this kind of information [about the boycott]”, Sovann said.
Im Vutha, spokesperson for the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia - a semi-autonomous body that oversees all the country’s ISPs - confirmed the censorship of websites deemed to cause “election disruption”.
“Whatever activities that affect and disturb the election, we take actions [against],” Im Vutha said.
“Any websites affecting and disturbing the election against the law, [we will] shut down.”
National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said the NEC sent a letter yesterday to three related ministries - the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Interior - asking them to take action “against any activities disturbing the election process.”
“If those relevant ministries find out that any information from those websites [is disturbing the election], they will take actions,” he said. He added that the NEC hadn’t specified which websites were to be blocked.
“If any websites publish information and with the intention of preventing people from going to vote, that is against the law,” he said.
In late May the three ministries formed a joint working group to investigate "fake news" at the same time that the government released a new directive handing them powers to monitor and "control" online reporting.
A letter dated April 18 from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to the Ministry of Information asked internet service providers to equip themselves with software which could easily filter or block any accounts and/or pages that publish content violating the law.
Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group Licadho told VOA the ISPs Cellcard and Opennet were also both blocking The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily.
Early this year, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications told all internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to block the website of The Cambodia Daily newspaper and its associated social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter pages, according to documents obtained by VOA Khmer.
The English-language Daily, which had reported critically inside Cambodia since 1993, was forced to close in September last year amid a standoff with the General Department of Taxation over an alleged bill of $6.3 million worth of back taxes.
The government insisted that it was merely implementing the law and that the taxes being sought were unrelated to the Daily’s critical reporting in the past.
Since the paper’s closure in September, Cambodian internet users have complained that the Daily’s website has been unavailable on certain ISPs, making it more difficult to access the newspaper’s extensive story archive.
The Phnom Penh Post was bought by Malaysian investor in May and now under control of Cambodian lawyer Ly Tayseng, who also confirmed that the newspaper's websites are also blocked though VOA Khmer could not find the outlet on the Ministry’s list.
This article was revised on July 28th, 2018 at 5:40 PM