Cambodia’s government on Tuesday summoned representatives of the country’s press to “educate” them on its decision to monitor and “control” online news ahead of a controversial general election in July, prompting NGOs and media watchdogs to decry the move as censorship.
In a 10-article “Prakas”—or regulation adopted by a minister—released in June, Cambodia’s ministries of information, interior, and posts and telecommunications jointly declared the formation of an inter-ministry working group that will investigate media groups and individuals found to be spreading “fake news” online.
The Prakas is aimed at “controlling all dissemination of information” that is deemed to “threaten the defense and security of the nation, relations with other countries, the economy, public order, and discriminates against the country’s customs and traditions,” the announcement said, and authorizes the ministries to take action against offenders and the internet service providers who host their content.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Information called on members of the media to attend a July 4 workshop in the capital Phnom Penh to inform them of the government’s plans to implement last month’s joint directive.
Independent journalist Nop Vy called the Prakas part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to restrict press freedom ahead of Cambodia’s July 29 general election, which is widely expected to be neither free nor fair without the participation of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) following its dissolution by the Supreme Court in November over an alleged plot to topple the government.
“Any censorship will negatively affect the people’s freedom, especially for any independent journalists that report on social issues,” he said, adding that the measure will also force the media to self-censor.
“The measure will additionally affect voters’ ability to receive news about the upcoming election and other important issues in society.”
Soeung Sen Karona, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, also hit out at the Prakas, which he said will affect the public’s right to expression.
He noted that only a handful of countries, such as one-party Communist ruled China and Vietnam, have instituted similar measures restricting the use of social media.
“Censorship will not serve our country’s interests, especially because we allow people to freely participate in politics,” he said.
Tuesday’s summons came a day after Hun Sen ordered the authorities to equip themselves with technology to crackdown on any Facebook users who use the social media platform to prevent voters from voting, including software that will allow them to track their locations and apprehend them.
The CNRP has called on Cambodians to boycott this month’s ballot in protest over its dissolution.
The party received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming vote.
Also on Tuesday, NGOs welcomed a statement from Cambodia’s minister of defense Tea Banh barring military officers from using security vehicles and equipment to campaign ahead of the election, which was relayed to government-aligned media outlets by defense ministry spokesman Chum Socheat.
Yong Kim Eng, the president of the People Center for Development and Peace, said the authorities “must enforce” Tea Banh’s ban, otherwise his order would be “meaningless.”
He noted that in past elections, military vehicles and equipment were used to campaign despite similar bans, with offenders removing insignias so that members of the public did not know whether they belonged to the government or the security forces.
Ahead of 2013’s general election, NGOs slammed unfair competition during the campaign period, saying government officials and civil servants had used state resources while stumping for their party.
Last month, election observers accused Hun Sen of acting in breach of Cambodia’s electoral laws by urging people to vote for him in the upcoming general ballot outside of the official campaign period.
Hun Sen has called for Cambodians to support him at the polls at nearly every public appearance he had made—including while speaking at events for factory workers, students, and civil servants—despite a law which only allows campaigning between July 7 and 27.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.