Oum Vantharith, 28, started the Khmer-language Wikipedia and is attending the global Wikimania conference in Hong Kong, where Wikipedia geeks, open-source savants and creative commons crusaders converge. The ‘global South’ is the Wikimedia Foundation’s current area of action, and this year Wikipedia removed download charges for Cambodian users accessing the site, in partnership with a local mobile provider. Vantharith, who is completing a master's degree in public policy in South Korea, talks to Rosa Ellen about Cambodia’s fledgling Wikipedia community, political maneuvering on the site, and the role of social media in last week’s election.
Wikipedia is known for its quick turnaround on real-life events. Has Khmer Wikipedia already been updated to reflect the election result?
I believe the response has been quite late. I only saw their English edition, which some active user who regularly observes elections across the world updated. For [Khmer Wikipedia] we will wait until the English version is more or less credible and then we will double check it and then localise it into our language.
As a moderator, do you encounter problems with users editing Cambodian politics or history entries? Is that an issue for Khmer Wikipedia?
In regards to the election in Cambodia, some additions on certain pages, for example political parties, politicians, [have changes made] by anonymous contributors – people who don’t reveal their name, just an IP address. They try to make some changes: trying to praise one guy and saying bad things about another. For us, we watch out for all these incidents and try to undo the changes because we don’t want to take sides. Our articles should be neutral.
You are quite active on social media. In comparison to say Vietnam, or a country that has very strict government monitoring, how much do you think social media was monitored by the government in the lead-up to this election?
I believe from the government side … leaders are not capable enough to monitor these activities online because it’s also a new thing for them, and usually they tend to be slow in their approach to technology. Another reason might be because the internet is too broad.… They simply let it keep going.
What role did social media play in this election?
To my observation, social media played a crucial role, especially this election. It provided a free and accessible platform in terms of an alternative to the traditional media, which is somehow censored by the government. It allowed citizens to have another source of information and for them to balance the effect from both sources – online and traditional TV and radio. It actually empowered the citizens to be better informed and make better choices. From the preliminary election result we can see a correlation. The opposition tended to win more votes from concentrated areas: in the capital or nearby big provinces, for example. I believe those areas have better access to the internet. People use smartphones and they socialise on Facebook.
You’ve just been appointed as a Cambodian ambassador for the Open Knowledge Foundation; what does your role entail?
This movement is more or less similar to the Wikimedia Foundation but the mission is on a broader scale, promoting open content, open data, open government – they try to empower citizens by giving them data, so that they can do analyses or come up with great projects using that raw data. What we see now is that for some developing countries, the concept [of open source data] is new to them and even having access to government data – it will often be on a PDF or a scanned copy, it’s not machine readable. With this new role, I’m planning to contact other open data communities in Cambodia [and work with them.] It’s going to be a big thing and I believe it will contribute a lot of education on good governance, economics. It will open up everything.
What goes on at Wikimania?
As an admin for Khmer Wikipedia, my participation will represent [the Cambodian Wikipedia] community and it will be a good thing to meet like-minded people around the globe, a few of whom I have contact with online but we’ve never met. The event is not limited to Wikipedia people but also other movements like Mozilla, creative commons, open source, all those people who believe in free and open knowledge. On a global level [the Wikimedia Foundation] is still pushing through the issue of wider access [via Wikipedia mobile] providing access to users who potentially cannot access the internet on a computer.
How is the Khmer Wikipedia community going?
The trend is still going up but it’s a bit slow.... The problem now is we don’t have regular offline meetings, so the plan is after I graduate here in Korea I will move to Phnom Penh and I can devote some of my time to the regular meet-ups, which I believe will promote more contributions or wider engagement.