Information Ministry denies legislation extending libel to audovisual media will limit internet
One of Phnom Penh's many net-savvy citizens in an internet cafe in the city centre.
The Ministry of Information has denied that new libel legislation it is drafting for audiovisual media will bear on the internet, despite previous claims by its minister, Khieu Kanharith, that the recent explosion of websites was an impetus for the measure.
In a statement released Tuesday, the ministry said the law would target "audiovisual content in radio, television and print only", adding that public criticism of it levelled by local journalists earlier in the day was "absolutely untruthful".
But Sam Rithy Doung Hak, a monitor for the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, the group that condemned the proposed legislation as unwarranted censorship, said the ministry was simply "backtracking ... probably because of pressure from international groups based here".
Despite the ministry's claims, he said popular websites and cartoons critical of the government would be susceptible to censorship if the law were introduced. He singled out the online materials of news aggregator Khmer Intelligence and Australian-based Khmer cartoonist Sacrava as potential targets.
Khieu Kanharith was not available for comment Wednesday.
Don't regulate criticism
Local leaders of Cambodia's online community remain deeply cynical of any government efforts to regulate media content given its shaky track record. Cambodia is currently ranked 128th - or "partially free" - on the US-based Freedom House organisation's 2008 press freedom list
Keo Kounila, a local blogger and journalist, said vibrant opposition voices were essential to the fabric of a democracy, and saw the proposed bill as counterproductive to growth of the country's nascent political environment.
"The government should try to understand criticism [directed at it], not regulate it. This is similar to what China is trying to do," she said, referring to the vigorous online censorship conducted by the communist state.
Norbert Klein, a Phnom Penh-based German who is credited with having introduced, internet to Cambodia in 1994, called the proposed legislation "very problematic".
"If there is legislation, it should be technically enforceable and legal. Neither is the case."
The demands of the law were unrealistic and unprecedented, he added.
"When the law says every ISP will need a license from the Information Ministry and Communication Ministry, no other country in the world has that," said Klein, who is also a policy adviser for ICANN, an international non-profit group that deliberates on a wide range of internet protocol issues. He said media censorship was susceptible to "escalation" in times of political turmoil and questioned the government's ability to regulate content using standards accepted by the population.