As blogging gains momentum amongst younger, urban Cambodians, former journalist and social media advocate Kounila Keo (blueladyblog.com), who was one of the pioneer bloggers in the Kingdom - starting her blog in 2007- now champions youth services in Cambodia, organising and presenting at workshops, conferences and forums in Cambodia and overseas.
The 24-year-old is passionate about young people getting exposure to other cultures, freedom of expression and human rights.
Do you think blogging and social media is an ideal platform for young people to talk about human rights, freedom of expression and social issues?
Definitely - there are more than 600 million people on various social media platforms. There are so many channels to open up young people’s worlds, once they see different ideas they’re open to so much more - we had a lot of volunteers at the Blogfest Asia 2012 (held in Siem Reap over the weekend) who weren’t bloggers and it’s inspired them.
You’ve got a very successful blog with a strong readership, what do you think you have done right to have that kind of success that others could emulate, and what barriers do you face?
I only feel that I have achieved a small thing. I’m sad that Cambodia doesn’t have a lot of people accessing the internet- not like the amount Vietnam and Thailand do.
Our usage is something like 10 per cent and there are a lot of barriers for less affluent people to access the internet- the price of it, accessibility and network coverage outside of cities, and other issues.
Young men get more time than young women to access the internet while girls are encouraged to stay at home and do household chores. We need efforts from both the public and private sectors- the internet has huge potential: people can work online remotely, they can learn and teach online,people can shop online, Cambodia needs to tap into this.
If the government integrates the internet as part of its curriculum, it would help immensely- we lack facilities: schools are still lacking buildings, teachers and other resources- we have to solve these problems on a national level.
But aren’t a lot of sites, particularly social media sites,restricted in Vietnam- does Cambodia face many censorship issues and are bloggers more important in countries where traditional media is restricted?
Yes, but even though Vietnam has restricted social media and freedom of expression and speech, a lot of people are online. E-commerce is booming there but in Cambodia that’s almost impossible.
Bloggers play an important role when traditional media isn’t reliable - people will seek out reliable information through any channel they can.
For example, in the Phillipines, when Manila flooded, a group of social media users were the ones informing the people as journalists couldn’t reach those areas - these bloggers could give readers exact, personal accounts and details.
Some say bloggers will kill journalists- I don’t think this is true - we just need citizen journalists to fill the gap that journalists can’t access.
How has your job as a journalist affected your work now and what prompted the change to youth activist and social media campaigner?
Blogging for me isn’t much different than writing a news article or feature, it’s just much more fun. There are many elements that I learnt through my journalism experience that fuse into my blog writing.
I’ll never make accusatory remarks on my blog, I fact check thoroughly - bloggers need to be aware of these things. I worry that there are no guidelines to becoming a blogger.
I read an article about a couple in Malaysia - a 24 year-old boy and a 23 year-old girl set up a sex blog. The site was closed down and they will be criminally prosecuted if they continue the blog - it was considered porn.
In Cambodia, there are problems of internet security. Some girls will put content or pictures or videos of themselves up online and men or porn sites may pull those images and use them.
Do you think NGOs, human rights groups and academics should be utilising social media more to push their media, as a CCHR report in August suggested?
The web has huge potential. Human rights NGOs should definitely embrace social media if they want to work more efficiently, to get donors, advocacy, and to reach people in remote areas. Many NGOs here cannot afford it though.
I have interviewed quite a few NGOs and they said it wasn’t that they did not want to do it but they couldn’t - finances, resources and so on.
There is debate over whether bloggers, or ‘citizen journalists’ could replace trained journalists and whether this would be a good or bad thing- what are your thoughts, and in a country like Cambodia, is it important to have trained journalists writing and broadcasting the news?
From my observations of what’s happened recently in Malaysia, the Phillipines, Egypt and Syria, I would say yes, bloggers can replace journalists in some ways.
Journalists are still needed and are very important though - they’re trained to write short and concise stories, how to structure a story, find an angle…but we need both.
It’s more of a synergy, they feed off each other and get information off each other.
If bloggers are shedding light on human rights issues and offering opinion that is critical of the government, such as the Mam Sonando case or BoeungKak, do they have cause to be concerned for their own safety?
A cyber law has been drafted since I was studying over five years ago. Many say it is the government’s attempt to stifle the speech of activists. It happens everywhere. Should we be worried about it here?
Many people here do self-censor and will refrain from blogging on serious issues. Sadly, they watch their steps.
It’s a huge barrier. Many fear for their own safety, people get sad when they see politicians and people like Sonandoand the BoeungKak women arrested - it’s a blackmail the government has sent to every citizen.
*Kounila Keo worked as a journalist for the Phnom Penh Post and freelances for AFP and various magazines.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]