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Spreading the word

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The internet reaches out

Lisa Chiles, left, regional mission director of the United States Agency for International Development, which funded the project, at the opening of the first Community Information Center in Takhmau, Kandal province, on February 18. The site can be viewed at: www.cambodiacic.org

You can measure the distance information travels in Cambodia by the number of ears

it reaches. In many provinces, where electricity and literacy are still the exception,

news comes by word of mouth, if at all.

But the return of a largely abandoned institution, the public library, may change

that.

Through an initiative of The Asia Foundation (TAF), a network of 22 'Community Information

Centers' (CICs) will open in each province by the end of March. Rooms filled with

computers and stacks of books will operate as clearing houses for election information,

agricultural prices and news stories. The centers will link Phnom Penh to the provinces,

and the provinces with one another.

"It's not just a computer in the desert, as we've seen elsewhere, but there

is actually an end [to the project]," says Tim Meisburger, election advisor

at TAF. "It's an information technology project to distribute information."

The model is simple: set up libraries across the land, equip them with books and

computers, and train people how to use them. Then create a Khmer language web site

that brings together information from flood levels to political parties. Add free

email and let the information flow.

For now the project has one goal: to distribute information as quickly and broadly

as possible before the elections. The target audience is referred to as "change

agents": party representatives or NGO workers who can take the information to

a broader audience.

Eventually TAF hopes farmers will drop by to check on crop prices, students will

scour the internet for assignments, and communities can receive flood warnings ahead

of a potential disaster. Along the way the centers are expected to generate a new

demand for internet services.

"What we hope is that we will work ourselves out of a job," says Meisburger,

predicting that most provinces will have internet access comparable to Phnom Penh

within three years. "We are working to accomplish a task which is to increase

the number of users and making internet access [commercially] viable in the provinces."

That vision remains a long way off. Not many people in provincial towns have experience

with computers, a situation TAF plans to tackle with training programs in each center.

But since only a handful of staff from local NGOs work at each site, the job of attracting

the "several hundred core users" that TAF wants will be difficult.

Another problem is the extremely low literacy rate. A recent survey, Publishing in

Cambodia, noted that only one person in four is able to read Khmer comfortably. In

Phnom Penh, which has the highest literacy rate in the country, barely half the population

can read and write. For provinces like Mondolkiri the figure is well below 10 percent.

"Setting up the project was the easy part," admits Tom Parks, an information

technology consultant at TAF. He helped to establish the wireless network connecting

the far-flung centers through MobiTel's communications system.

Parks says the immediate challenge will be to keep momentum going throughout the

multi-year project. He must coordinate the work of eight NGO hosts and technical

support companies that manage the centers.

The start-up cost was $1.2 million, and although expenses will be lower next year,

the project still faces growing pains and a tumultuous election year. The July election

will be the first test to see how well the centers inform the public.

The first CIC opened on February 18 in Kandal province just outside Phnom Penh. More

will open each week, until by the end of March all 22 are running. The site has already

started to promote access to political party platforms, and provides updated political

news and direct dialogue with politicians.

"What we want to do is enhance the political process," says Meisburger.

"We don't want to support anyone. We want to make it easier for parties to communicate,

easier for citizens to communicate with their parties, and easier for parties to

develop their networks."

To avoid political wrangling, TAF officials have insisted on neutrality for the project.

The CIC web site will offer content, but will not produce any itself. The site, written

entirely in Khmer, draws news stories from the country's media while offering sections

on health, politics, NGOs, government agencies, agriculture and chat rooms.

The Open Forum of Cambodia, a local NGO that publishes a weekly news digest called

The Mirror, will manage the site's content.

Houth Ratanak, director of the Open Forum, says news will be selected based on its

accuracy and value toward promoting social development. Controversial political news

gleaned from Khmer newspapers will be available through a link to The Mirror website,

but not on the main CIC site.

"For political parties we have to think [about the content] because it is very

sensitive," she says. "We don't want to provide any sensitive [political]

information on the website because the goal is to provide information for development

of the community."

TAF worked with provincial governments, rather than central government, to establish

the centers. It says they were eager to cooperate on its development. It might be

a surprise to some, but central government - which keeps a generally tight handle

on information - seems not to be too concerned with the project.

Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, says he was aware

of the project's development and has no objections, as long as the content is reasonable.

"No problem," he says. "You can say that this government is incompetent,

but not everything on the internet is always true."

Kanharith vows the ministry will not interfere with the site unless it posts egregious

material such as "pedophilia, organized crime" or a "very terrible

thing, insulting to everybody".

"What we need is more media literacy," he says. "How to use information

to get the truth. Creating a climate of dialogue would be the best for the Cambodian

government."

That, says TAF, is exactly the point it is trying to make.

"The government stands to benefit quite a bit by linking people in the provinces

with the counterparts in the capital," Parks says.

Rather than feeling threatened, he adds, the government and other political parties

should use the site to mobilize their constituencies and listen to the demands of

voters. That should lead to greater transparency and a more responsive government.

The leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, says his party is considering launching

its own internet radio station if possible. Rainsy says the project could "help

a number of people" and indicated he would participate in the project.

But given that the broadband technology used with the network makes streaming broadcasts

impractical, CIC cannot yet offer internet radio stations like the Voice of America,

whose bid for an FM radio license was again turned down last year.

But TAF does not discount the possibility that it could happen, and says it may work

if MobiTel upgrades the technology of its network.

Ultimately, though, the project has its limits. For example, it will not prove a

panacea for combating government corruption. Transparency measures that TAF has enacted

elsewhere in the region are noticeably absent here.

In the Philippines, for example, an 'e-government' website sponsored by TAF offers

counter corruption resources and a way to report illegal activities. In Thailand,

a site called Transparency Thailand posts the tax returns of high-ranking government

officials.

Parks says no corruption projects are planned. The reason is that major changes must

occur in the government before such a project can be successful.

"A lot of people think that the addition of computers will solve underlying,

systemic problems, but it doesn't work," says Meisburger. "If you have

a good system you can computerize it. And I think that's how the government will

evolve here, primarily with communication."

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