Documents obtained today – and a surprising tweet – have confirmed what observers have suspected for months: that the Cambodian government ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to the website of the recently shuttered Cambodia Daily.
Since shortly after the newspaper was forced to close on September 4, following the levying of a $6.3 million tax bill, access to the Daily’s site has proved patchy, with online users questioning whether certain ISPs had blocked the site.
Documents show that Tax Department head Kong Vibol asked the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPTC) to order ISPs to block the Daily’s IP address, Facebook page and Twitter account, primarily to “prevent the Cambodia Daily from making an excuse for why they were shut down from publishing, and secondly, to prevent them from continuing to operate online”, according to a letter dated September 5.
Vibol added that his department was “taking serious action” because the Daily had failed to “comply with the law” and pay the tax bill, one critics described as an “exorbitant” sum designed to shut down the often critical paper.
A second letter, dated September 28 and signed by Telecoms Ministry Secretary of State Khay Khunheng, instructs that “all companies who are providing internet services in Cambodia must set up software programs and devices that control the internet to block the webpage . . . and guarantee that this webpage and IP address will no longer be operating in the Kingdom of the Cambodia”.
It also requires ISPs to filter the Daily’s Facebook and Twitter accounts “in order to stop the operation of the account of the two pages”. The documents came to light after one ISP, Sinet KH, made a frank admission on Twitter late on Friday.
“We can confirm that we’ve been ‘ordered’ to block access to @cambodiadaily since many months ago,” @sinetKH wrote in a since-deleted tweet.
When pressed for more details, the representative wrote: “We are surprised by the reactions of this. The ‘block’ was long ago. Apart from a couple of complaints, most of our customers never noticed a thing. @cambodiadaily was never a popular web destination in the first place,” followed by the hashtag “#JustDoingOurJobs”.
Anecdotally, internet users have noted difficulty in accessing the Daily through MekongNet, Online and WiCam. MekongNet’s Sreang Pito confirmed the Daily’s IP address had been blocked to “follow government”.
Ezecom CEO Paul Blanche-Horgan said he had never seen such a letter, nor had Neak Longkheang at Digi. Representatives from other ISPs could not be reached today.
Cambodia Daily Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele said she did not know what “legal basis” there was for her site to be blocked.
“Of course it’s very disappointing that many Cambodians are not able [to] access our archived award-winning reports,” she said in an email.
Im Vutha, spokesman for the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, said while he was unaware of the letter, as a newspaper the Daily should fall under the purview of the Information Ministry, with the government having “a right to block their websites”.
“If they do something to not follow the law, the government has the right to enforce [the law],” Vutha said.
When asked in October if the government had ordered such a ban, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith responded: “We didn’t ask to block any website.” Today, he maintained he was unaware of the letter, adding that he had “no competence on cyber space”.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said he understood the government “had a right to use the law”, but the block was a blow to press freedom. “Any shut down or block of the site can be perceived as censorship,” he said.
The controversial Law on Telecommunications provides “in the event of a force majeure” – an unforeseeable circumstance that prevents someone from fulfilling a contract – “MPTC or competent ministries or institutions may order relevant telecommunications operators to take necessary measures by relying on the Decision of the Royal Government”.
That “ill-defined” article was slammed in a 2016 legal analysis by rights group Licadho, which said the provision was “vulnerable to misuse” and might be “abused to temporarily shut down social networks and other internet-based services”.
Updated: 11:12pm, Sunday, 4th February 2018