Digital democracy emerging in Cambodia

By Chak Sopheap, Published on UPI Asia online

November 11, 2009

Niigata, Japan ? Press freedom in Cambodia has gradually declined from ?partly free? in 2008 to ?no freedom? in 2009. But the same cannot be said if the medium of publication is the Internet. Rather, online press freedom is emerging as the new “digital democracy” in the country.

Compared to other media channels, news online and personal blogs are apparently enjoying more freedom and independence from government censorship and restrictions. A number of websites and blogs are disseminating news, entertaining the public, and mainly serving as a platform for political, economic and social discussions.

There are also an increasing number of young people in Cambodia, both male and female, who have joined the Internet bandwagon. While they come from different institutions with varying backgrounds, surfing the Internet for information, interacting on online forums, joining online social networks and creating their own blogs are reportedly their prime online activities. This emerging trend can bring some positive development in Cambodia.

First, it can promote gender equality, as many female Internet users indulge in online chats, social networks and blogs. Second, access to many news sources can enable people to increase their knowledge and enhance creativity. Third, it can increase the people?s awareness of global developments and make them better prepared to accept or critique changes in their own country that may impact their lives.

But the government?s philosophy of not paying much attention or restricting online access stems from the fact that Internet penetration is very low in Cambodia. As per 2007 statistics, only an estimated 0.3 percent of the population is connected to the Internet. This is due to the high cost of Internet connections as well as computer hardware and software that not many can afford. Besides, the level of computer literacy is also very low.

So Internet censorship by the government is minimal, as Cambodia?s Internet community is relatively very small and spending on technology does not benefit the government or the majority of the population. Besides, the current level of Cambodia?s technological knowledge is still limited.

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently rejected a proposal by a national commission to tax radio and TV users, which could prevent people from accessing the news. The government has also introduced its own website, with the aim of building a public service and disseminating information and news related to activities of government institutions. This constructive action reveals government efforts to facilitate and encourage people to access the media.

However, there have been crackdowns on websites in the past that have spoken against the government or revealed family information and business associations of Hun Sen and his family members. Websites and blogs showing pornography were also pulled down.

Although Kieu Kanharith, Cambodia?s minister of information, said that the government did not crack down on websites, there is a tendency to formulate laws to restrict websites that the government deems unfit.

The government is now working on a draft law on ?broadcasting services used via electronic systems,? which intends to control broadcasting of audiovisual data, games, entertainment and online advertisement to conform to morality rules. Although Kieu declared that the draft law would not apply to news websites, it is doubtful that would happen, as the government in all likelihood would censor those news sites that it feels harm its political agenda.

With the government encouraging e-government and e-communication on the Internet, there is hope that there will not be another ?great firewall of Cambodia? like China has for filtering Internet content, although the same is practiced by neighboring countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Should that be the case, the above-mentioned motivations are pointless and mean that Cambodia?s democratic system is not only gradually deteriorating but the country is beginning to lag behind other advanced countries in technology and development.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

20 thoughts on “Digital democracy emerging in Cambodia

  1. you’re not the first person in associating democracy with such things as freedom of expression or human rights. But the question is if it is really so. Democracy is defined as people power (should be universally acceptable). You think Cambodia will be a democracy when its citizens are ‘allowed’ to do this or that (of course in the framework of law)? you think people have the power when they are still subject to being ‘allowed’ or ‘disallowed’ according to the will of the ruling politicians? In this case, don’t you think the politicians are actually those holding the power? Why not try to think this way: things like freedom of expression and human rights are the ‘products’ of democracy not ‘determinants’ of democracy.

  2. Absolutely, you are right that we should precisely define the term democracy.The term democracy originates from the Greek words (demos, which means ?the people,? and kratein, which means ?to rule?). Democracy thus refers to a political system in which the country is ruled by citizens through their chosen government. It should be noted that elections are only one element of a democracy; others may include a free press, an independent judiciary and respect for minorities. According to the US Department of State, there are key pillars to determine a democratic society including ?the sovereignty of the people; government based upon consent of the governed; majority rule; minority rights; guarantee of basic human rights; free and fair election; and equality before the law?. Therefore, my above article labels Cambodia only the digital democracy of Cambodia! it does not mean Cambodia is fully democratic at this stage. Also, the products or determinants of democracy can be translated in the same way. If a country is a democratic nation, people’s rights to freedom of expression must be guaranteed and respected. Thus, if we want to measure a country to be democratic, we have to base on this value as well.

  3. Thanks for your comment.

    First, thanks for pointing out the ‘products’ and ‘determinants’. These words don’t convey my meaning properly.

    Second, you mention Cambodia is not fully democratic at this stage. Could you present your argument?

  4. this arguments were already presented in my previous articles. please refer to the following links which i think it covers most of the pillar of democratic determinants:

    Misuse of law threatens Cambodian democracy

    Cambodia?s Development Benefits Whom?

    Cambodia needs anti-corruption culture

    You are also welcomed to comment on these articles. I am glade if i could make my article convinced.

  5. Thanks for the links. Actually I read all of these and I disagree with you to a certain degree as you never touch on the most important characteristics of democracy. But I won’t write as I have got a better way. I’d like to recommend this audio clip to you. And many more from the same website if you like. I’m not sure if you have listened to that and I appreciate if you can give your thought after that.{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20How{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20to{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20Have{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20Real{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20Democracy{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20Live{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}20Vol{ada422a91571c9f32663835004e322394559eff300a971d9698e6f9db6bdae5e}201.mp3

  6. Hi pheap,

    I felt deeply impressed concerning your critical article of interest.
    Here, I am writing to express my small thought on one of the three components you have raised. That is the promotion of ‘gender equality’ through what you named Digital Democracy (DD).

    Gender issue is everywhere in the world which needs a fix fast. One point of concern I would like to raise here is that: To what extent the recent DD serves as a useful framework for analyzing the achievement of gender equality?

    Overall, I don?t exclusively oppose your idea on this issue. However, through a gendered lens, ?gender equity? policy is far more than to be realized. Clearly, there is a big gendered gap in every breath of women?s life from educational dimension through political sphere. Thus, the idea of equalizing the sexes is unlikely.

    DD can be deployed for both positive and negative ends. As a positive end, DD by no means guarantees the promotion of gender equality. It is a negative end in itself in that women (women?s thinking) are under-empowered to fully participate in development discourses. Viewing digital freedom through a gendered lens, we must ask what kind of space has already been generated for the participation of women, and most importantly how women as ‘change agent’ are empowered. The answers to these questions are not yet clear.

    The contribution of the DD to the attainment of gender equality is not without its limitation. Ultimately, there is a need for persistent attention not only to the quantity of women?s participation generated, but to the quality.



  7. Dear Bong Sokcheng,

    Your comment on gender dimension is very critical useful. I totally agree with the issue you have raised and of course the DD is not all part for gender promotion, but it can partly play its role to change woman’s attitude and empower her knowledge and leadership. The attitude here i refer to the way that woman mostly stay out or hindered from socialization. Through online communication (blog or social network), woman are more open to discuss certain issue and express her idea, for example. There is also online gender group have been established in order to give space for women/and all to discuss gender issue (Open Institute of Cambodia’s gender list for example).

    Regardless this improvement, gender promotion is still challenging, there are still many gender related problem including domestic violence and political involvement. I hope DD can be utilize to address more this challenging facts.

    Thanks bong n i invite u to join with gender list on Open Institute of Cambodia.

  8. Dear bong Sopheap;

    I am Lyda, senior student of DMC. You might know it right? I do appreciate your critical and worth-to-think article about the emergence of Digital Democracy Cambodia. I whole-heartedly agree with your critic. However, I am still doubt on how ICTs promote gender equity in using them. As you have mentioned, there is increasingly young Internet users both men and women. Through blog, for example, women are now able to connect to the outside world, if I have to say. However, still there are not many women bloggers who are enthusiastically interested in sharing information related to politics or technology in order to help strengthen Real democracy in Cambodia as you. Nevertheless, they, most women bloggers, are more likely to use their bloggosphere to talk about personal-related issues instead. How do you personally think about this trend? This, however, really catches me. That is why I decided, with some consultant from lecturer, to have it as my final-year thesis.

    Hope I can learn more from you.

    Best regards,

  9. Dear Lyda,

    I am glad to get comment and discussion with you. Of course, i know some media student there (maybe you may know Nila, Seangheng, Seila…)

    Concerning to your doubt, absolutely we used to debate about it during the blogger submit in 2007 in PP. i moderated a session on gender and blog which i raise the issue of gender stereotype in blogging:
    Lisa Guernsey (2002), journalist for the New York Times says that men write about everything apart from their personal life, mostly politics, while women write specifically about their personal life. The reasons surrounding the question of why men are more likely to write about news and politics than women is concealed in cultural trends that span centuries. It also has a great deal to do with the stereotyped roles of males and females in society, such that men rule the business world and women rule the house (Guernsey, 2002).

    Though, I do not think gender is key attribution. Personality is rather the factor of differences. Though living in a strong rooted-culture of male domination, I still could see a large number of students majoring in law, media (just like you), international relations, and politics are women. Also, on the Equitas virtual community (Human Rights group discussion), voice from females are at majority. Then, I assume that blogging is shaped by people?s preference and its accessibility, not gender. It thus require us to advocate for more affordability and accessibility for women to participate. Regardless of gender, all bloggers use blogs as a great means of self-expression and forum for social-policy discourse.

    We are living in globalization where new technologies are giving us more comfortable and advantageous means for communication. Therefore, we should use these means for advocating better respect for gender and social equity. There are good examples of blogsphere like Blog Sister, Blogher, and Feminist Networks that provide a space for gender discussion and women forum, which it may difficult for face to face gathering. I will send you some documents related to this discussion which it can be useful for your thesis.


  10. Dear bong;

    I firstly thank for your logical comment. Through observation and research findings, women are more likely to post their personal issues, so to say, while men tend to talk about politics or technology in their blog which sometimes, if i have to say, catches attention from the mainstream media. Not many women bloggers are in attention of media. Unlike other women bloggers, you get a lot of attention from the media since, if i am not wrong, you talk about politics and analyze the atmosphere of Cambodian politics and democracy. I would like to ask you some questions:
    1. Can women be empowered by using the ICTs?
    2. And so far, personally do you think, ICTs in general and blog in specific empower you as a user?
    3. How much do you think blog has empowered you, as a woman blogger?

    I am looking forward to hearing your sharing.

    Sincerely thanks

  11. Dear Lyda,

    Thanks for following up the media and finding that i am likely appear on media often. However, i found others women bloggers too including Nila, Nearirath, Kalyann. The number of course still quiet small, but it is significant that the women voice got heard. I would acknowledge that most of the case women blog personal story rather than politics, it was due to the fact of preference ( i still maintain that preference does matter for women to blog on their favorite issue; while men tend not to speak their personal matter but external discussion). I posit this statement based on my own experience that i do not like to put my personal issue for discussion, but academic or political matter. Still, i am woman, and for those women who blog beside their own story do share this experience. I also found men blog personal stuff or only technological issues, or entertainments only. I met some men, bloggers, who expressed their reluctance or hatred in blogging on social or political area. So, to my observation and experience, gender does not matter, but people’s preference.

    About media mainstream, i think there is also problem with media echo. I dn’t want to generalize the journalist (for all media channel), but they tend to interview or raise only men’s voice. It is rare that women are targeted for their media article. If you follow up media on radio/ TV or newspaper alone, most men are interviewed. You may argue that it is because women are hardly found for media source, but it is not such the case now. Many women are expert in social politics (Chea Vannath, Gek Galabru, Open Institute’s director- i forget her name, female Political activists and community activists). But often, they rarely target these people. I believe more women can be expert and echoed on media, but they did not encourage them.

    For your questions, I am glad to answer as the following:

    1. Can women be empowered by using ICTs?
    As i mention earlier, media must play roles in capture women’s voice, so that they are encouraged to advocate and participate more. Through using ICTs, i believe women can be empowered through new knowledge awareness, social communication which can build her social skill and participation. Some women tend to be more open when discussing issue online or through writing rather than face to face communication. So through online social communication, i believe that women is motivated to participate more. The more we familiar with the media, women are more confident in discussion and creativeness.

    2. And so far, personally do you think, ICTs in general and blog in specific empower you as a user?
    Yes, i am much empowered by social communication/blog especially. What make me proud of my achievement is that my voice got heard by many audience, locally and internationally. It is because of media and blogs that bring me to connect to many readers who comment or criticize my articles. Some encourages, some discourages, but still i am motivated to advocate more. Before, i only write letter to editor such as Cambodia Daily which somehow targets only few readers locally, mainly in PP. But through blog, my concerns is shared to worldwide and i get contacted by many people and i got invited to contribute more to other media stream. So, i think without ICTs and blog, i dn’t think we are communicating on gender and blog issue today. In some case, i have social network to help sharing me idea or references on concerned topics i am working on as class assignment or general research. It gives me positive results and a lot of feedback. This is how ICT empower myself, and i believe it does to other women if they prefer and get this opportunity.

    3. How much do you think blog has empowered you, as a woman blogger?
    I think this question is similar to the 2nd one. My last word is that blog brings me to the world and the world to me. Readers keep motivates me and help improve my skill (writing, critical analysis, and social networks).

    I hope it is helpful and sufficient enough, please let me know if you want to elaborate more.


  12. Inspite of many sentiments, better explored articles still fetch in subscribers like me. You showed clear understanding of the subject matter and my views are now complete after reading your post. Please keep up the sound work and i will subscribe to your rss feed to be enlightened of any succeeding postings.

  13. Inspite of many sentiments, better explored articles still fetch in subscribers like me. You showed clear understanding of the subject matter and my views are now complete after reading your post. Please keep up the sound work and i will subscribe to your rss feed to be enlightened of any succeeding postings.

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