A series of recent orders by the government to restrict access to
online content have critics concerned that a more comprehensive
campaign against the internet may be on the way.
A computer user looks at some of controversial artist Reahu's work.
WHILE the vice squad in Cambodia set its sights on racy magazines in recent weeks, the more concerning trend for local observers has been government-directed blocks of controversial websites through a haphazard, piecemeal campaign that has left them uncertain who is calling the shots on censorship and how.
Access to reahu.org, the website of the Khmer-American artist Koke Lor, has been blocked since the end of January for users of domestic internet service providers Angkor Net, Mekong Net, Online and qb.
The website stirred up controversy after a major Khmer-language newspaper published pictures from the website of bare-breasted Apsara dancers and a woman scantily dressed in the clothing of a Khmer Rouge cadre.
The government and some social observers condemned the work as lewd and insulting to Cambodian culture, while others defended the artist's right to freedom of expression.
The artist, in an email to the Post, accused the government of using him as a "scapegoat" to project contemporary social ills onto his work, and, in a posting on his website, cautioned: "If this kind of basic freedom is denied God knows what will happen next."
Minister of Post and Telecommunications So Khun at the time confirmed that he sent a letter to the internet providers but said he did not know what effect it had.
Sy Define, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Women's Affairs, said her office cooperated with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications to have the reahu website banned domestically along with "some other websites that show sexy pictures ... such as websexplace.com and thomsunder.com."
"Apsara images like those in the reahu website have a bad effect on our culture," she said. "The Aspara is supposed to show women as being gentle, not looking very sexy."
The ban on reahu divided Pan Sorasak, a secretary of state at the Commerce Ministry who has spearheaded the government efforts to promote e-commerce.
"The internet can be a doubled-edged sword. It can help promote business, but it can also lead to problems," he said. "We are trying to promote the better half."
"To block the website was a bit strong," he added. "It's a fine line - the Ministry of Women's Affairs was against the website, and I support them."
Phu Leewood, secretary general of the National Information Communications Technology Development Authority (NIDA), the government's main internet body, said he was unaware of an official internet ban on reahu or that local providers had filtered out content.
But he said he would respect the Ministry of Women's Affairs decision if they had called for a ban on the reahu website - although he was adamant his office "supported freedom of information."
While he said it would be a long time coming before Cambodia had internet-specific regulations, the laws of other mediums can be applied to the internet, he explained, adding that since pornography in magazines is illegal, it is illegal online as well.
Official enforcement of anti-pornography laws, he said, can come from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Women's Affairs because "pornography offends Cambodian culture and Cambodian women" - although Sy Define of the Women's Affairs Ministry said monitoring online pornography was not the domain of the Culture Ministry.
Not a censorship policy
The moves follow denials from the Ministry of Information that new legislation it is drafting for audiovisual media will bear on content or online material altogether.
In mid-January, first reports of the proposal, the details of which have not been publicly disclosed, drew a sharp response from local media who cautioned it would be used as a tool of state censorship against online material critical of the government.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith has since said the draft law is widely misunderstood, insisting that it would regulate the platforms of radio, TV and print media, but not their content - and would not apply to the internet.
But Sam Rithy Doung Hak, a monitor for the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, said the ministry was simply backtracking following public condemnations of its plans.
Despite the ministry's claims, he believed the government intended to rein in popular websites and online cartoons critical of the government.
"The government said it wouldn't regulate internet content, but it has already broken that promise," he said, referring to blocked access to the work of reahu.
"They didn't do it through proper channels. They did it discreetly, behind the scenes."
Local leaders of Cambodia's online community remain deeply cynical of any government efforts to govern the internet given its shaky track record with media. Cambodia is currently ranked 128th - or "partially free" - on the US-based Freedom House organisation's 2008 press freedom list.
Tharum Bun, a leader in Cambodia's blogging community who headed the country's first major blogging conference, said the disparate sources of would-be internet regulators here stemmed from the government's lack of tech savvy: An offended office, wishing to shut down a site, contacts another office, hoping they know what to do, and the process spirals.
"When the Ministry of Women's Affairs wanted to shut down the website of reahu, they spoke about the internet as if it were the radio or television," he said. "It was clear they don't understand how the internet works."
And while the lack of legislation related to the internet in Cambodia allows users to post material that may be banned in other mediums, it also allows the government to censor it without rules to guide how and under what circumstances, he added.
Norbert Klein, who is also editor of the online Cambodian Mirror, put the online blocks in the context of a larger censorship campaign by "self-appointed groups that act to clean society without the authority to do so."
Last month, Information Ministry officials removed from Phnom Penh newsstands a Khmer-language magazine Sameiy Thmei, or Modern Magazine, which included lifted online images of nude women. The street raid came a day after first lady Bun Rany - a long-time crusader against people, places and things deemed by her to compromise the Kingdom's social mores - railed against the proliferation of racy images of women in Cambodia and blamed the Ministry of Information for failing to stamp them out.
What most disturbed Klein about the online blocks was the lack of accountability: "We need clarity: Who has done what and on what legal basis?" he said. "The government is supposed to operate in a state of laws. but there isn't transparency with this."
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights, said the government-directed blocks were twofold in purpose: to steer attention away from the real social ills it claims to be addressing and to remind would-be critics of its power to control them.
"Reahu is not pornography, while actual pornography - including child pornography - is available throughout Cambodia at the markets, at vendor stalls," he said.
He said an overwhelming victory at the polls in last July's general election gave the ruling party a strong mandate, "one aspect of which is censorship of things they don't like, whether it's an NGO report or something cultural."
Instructing internet service providers to block websites, he said, is intended to have a discreet, but resounding, ripple effect. "It's a way of saying, ‘We control you'."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR