The Rise of Digital Democracy in Cambodia
Globalization and the development of technology has brought better access to information and increased civic participation to most countries and Cambodia is no exception. While non-governmental organizations have traditionally been the key advocacy players, technological advances have now heralded in the rise of citizen journalism networks. The trend, however, is still minimal due to an overall climate of restricted governance.
Though population penetration of social media sites is reportedly low, Facebook has a population penetration of 3.18% which is growing fast. In the last six months Facebook subscriptions in Cambodia increased by 26% to a total of 469,660. Grass-root advocates have also engaged strongly with technology to amplify their appeal for the respect of human rights in terms of freedom from eviction and protection of forests. Examples of this are the “Prey Lang-It’s Your Forest Too,” blog that gives public updates on some of their activities like prayer ceremonies and distribution of leaflets to save the endangered forest and the “Save Boeung Kak Campaign“
Despite the emergence of a notion of digital democracy, participation by young bloggers in demanding their rights is still far from the norm. On-going government restrictive measures via legal and judicial channels and the police that usually target politicians, journalists, and activists critical of the government has hindered greater youth participation. This means that the governance advocacy movement is still mostly driven by civil society organizations like Sithi, a Cambodian human rights portal that aims to crowd-source and document reports of human rights abuse, or Saatsam, a virtual library of information on corruption that aims to encourage public participation in combating corruption and promoting transparency.
Compared to ‘old media’ in Cambodia, ‘new media’ such as online news, social networks and personal blogs currently enjoy more freedom and independence from government censorship and restrictions. This may be largely because, with such low internet penetration, the Royal Government of Cambodia has yet to recognize the internet as a significant threat. However, there have been several recent reports of blogs and websites being blocked.
Despite the claims by the Cambodian government that it supports freedom of expression and access to the internet, there have been various attempts in the past to control the internet, attempts which mainly targeted artists. There have been crackdowns on websites critical of the government or publishing information on the business associations of the Prime Minister and members of his family. Websites and blogs showing pornography or sexually explicit images were also closed down including reahu.net which was only accessible to internet users outside of Cambodia. The latest crackdown is the block on blogspot sites reportedly following an order from the Ministry of Interior to all Cambodia’s internet service providers. This crackdown is apparently a government reaction to the KI media post in December 2010 which described key government officials as ‘traitors.’ KI Media is a prominent online media blog critical of the Government.
In early 2010 the Cambodian Government planned to introduce a state-run exchange to control all local internet service providers with the declared aim of strengthening internet security against pornography, theft and cyber crime. This plan however has been postponed so far due to popular opposition even from inside the government.
In spite of the blurred boundaries between freedom of expression and restriction, the web has become a place where those Cambodians who do have internet access can communicate, debate and organize. A number of websites and blogs are disseminating news, entertaining the public and serving as a platform for political, economic and social discussions. New media has the potential to be a huge facilitator for change in Cambodia. However it is absolutely crucial that it remains the free and open forum for discussion that it is today. Major changes in political will and current legislation are also needed to reduce the climate of fear that hinders broader participation.