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Cambodia internet providers told to block independent broadcaster

Minutes after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shut down one of the country’s last independent news publications, internet service providers began blocking the outlet’s websites.

Digital rights activists say last week’s censorship of the Voice of Democracy’s (VOD) websites was carried out more rapidly and systematically than Cambodia’s previous efforts at online bans. The government is also preparing to put a National Internet Gateway and enact other policies to tighten online control in the run-up to July national elections.

“The speed and breadth of the website blackout shows that the government can force private-sector ISPs to censor critical voices and independent journalism at will,” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, a local human rights organization.

Cambodia blocked access to 43 websites last year, including at least six news media sites, according to the nongovernmental organization Advocacy and Policy Institute (API) in Phnom Penh.

Yet to block websites, Cambodian officials must corral dozens of internet service providers, a still-awkward process that the government plans to streamline in the future, digital rights groups warn.

Several hours before the scheduled 10 a.m. closure of Voice of Democracy on Feb. 13, a Cambodian telecommunications official created a Telegram group chat that appeared to contain all of the country’s approximately 40 registered ISPs, according to screenshots shared with Nikkei Asia.

“Good morning all ISPs. There is an urgent task to do, plz prepare in advance and start to execute,” the unidentified official at the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC) wrote in the chat. “Please prepare to block these websites, at 10 am today.”

“Done,” wrote an employee of Cambodian company Sinet, followed by responses from several other companies, which noted that they had complied with the order.

But not all companies were quick to take action.

“Wha[t] time, Bro?” asked one employee, two hours after the order to block VOD’s websites was supposed to have been executed.

VOD’s English- and Khmer-language websites could still be reached on certain internet providers, as of Thursday, likely because some companies forgot to include “www” when blocking the domain names, a telecommunications executive who admitted he had made that mistake told Nikkei Asia.

Despite the gaps in censorship, the government was able to shut off access to VOD more quickly than when it moved against the website of another media outlet, The Cambodia Daily, in 2017.

A copy of the official censorship order in VOD’s case, viewed by Nikkei Asia, shows that the government later required companies to block the websites of VOD and its parent organization, the NGO Cambodia Center for Independent Media (CCIM).

Stephen Higgins, founder and managing partner of Cambodia-based investment firm Mekong Strategic Capital, said internet service providers were left with little room to maneuver. “Given ISP’s require a government license to operate, they obviously can’t ignore instructions from the government when it comes to things like this,” Higgins said.

Telecommunications companies are also likely aware that the TRC has shown a willingness to take legal action against them. In 2021, it asked Cambodian courts to pursue criminal charges against then-CEO of Cambodian company Smart Axiata, a subsidiary of Malaysia-based Axiata Group, was forced to leave the country.

Many of Cambodia’s internet and mobile service providers are run by tycoons with close ties to the ruling party and the prime minister’s family, digital rights experts say.

Smart Axiata, Cellcard, Sinet, Viettel and TRC representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

CCIM’s media director, Ith Sothoeuth, said that blocking VOD’s websites closed off years of archived news information. Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades, ordered the revocation of VOD’s license in response to its publishing an article about his son that he claimed was inaccurate

“Because the government revoked the license, [this] means [VOD] can produce no more content,” Sothoeuth said. “But what has been published already should still be available to the public.”

VOD and other blocked websites can still be accessed by virtual private network (VPN), but most Cambodians are unaware of VPNs, said Tan Thary, an API internet monitoring specialist.

The government has attempted to assert control over websites in other ways, such as ordering registration of domain names on a national .kh address, in theory making it easier to block them, Thary said.

Most alarming to digital rights activists is the still-unfolding plan for a National Internet Gateway, which would route all Cambodia’s internet traffic through a government-run portal, allowing the state to better glean users’ data and block or disconnect internet access.

“There are grave concerns that the gateway will supercharge the government’s censorship capabilities, allowing it to scale up its website blocking,” a statement signed by more than 30 human rights organizations last year warned.

Minister of Telecommunications and Posts Chea Vandeth, whose Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, said in a January 2022 speech that the gateway was designed to prevent criminal activities, not to restrict internet freedom. “So, there’s no reason for some civil society [organizations] to be against the national interest,” he said.

But activists say further steps to bolster the government’s censorship capabilities pose grave risks to Cambodians’ access to information, highlighting the loss of VOD’s website.

“The government’s media crackdown and censorship of VOD’s website deprives millions of Cambodians of a crucial source of news and information,” Licadho’s Pilorge said. “This sets a dangerous precedent for journalists and human rights defenders seeking to protect freedom of expression here in Cambodia.” NIKKEI Asia

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