Cambodian Crackdown on Phnom Penh Internet Cafes

Cambodia's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications has issued a circular banning internet cafes within 500 meters of schools or educational buildings, a move that is regarded by critics as a serious infringement on freedom of communication in a poverty-stricken country with few computers.

Although authorities say they want to limit access by children to internet cafes and by extension pornography, in fact there is almost no area of Phnom Penh, the country's capital, that doesn't have a school within a 500-meter radius of an internet cafe, according to the Cambodian human rights NGO Licadho.

Despite a visit by US President Barack Obama and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in November for the meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which momentarily lifted the country's prestige, Cambodia has hardly been considered a democratic nation by the stretch of anybody's imagination.

Obama's call for President Hun Sen to hold fair elections and release political prisoners was ignored, pretty much along with Obama himself as Wen received the red carpet treatment. Hun Sen, in an exchange described as strained, said Cambodia's human rights record was fine and demanded that the US forgive US$370 million in debt owed to the US government.

The government has grown increasingly irritated by the legions of western NGOs and United Nations agencies in the country who provide approximately half of Cambodia's national budget and who continuously demand that the country adhere to their standards of behavior. The government, rife with corruption, has tired of the hectoring of the western agencies and has sought to crack down on them for the last couple of years and also has begun taking after critics.

In October, for instance, a Cambodian court sentenced Mam Sonando, a 71-year-old journalist and activist to 20 years in prison for allegedly instigating an anti-government rebellion, a verdict that Rupert Abbott, of the London-based Amnesty International, called "outrageous," adding that: "We believe the motivation behind his conviction is because he's been a prominent government critic. He's seen, I think, as a threat to the government; someone who's prepared to speak out."

Sonando ran the popular independent radio station Beehive Radio and was president of Cambodia's Democrat Association. In Cambodia, the media scene is dominated by outlets that are generally sympathetic to the ruling party. But Sonando's station often aired stories that were critical of Hun Sen's governing Cambodian People's Party.

In 2011, the government suspended for five months a German funded NGO, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which advocates for the urban poor, an action that earned the condemnation of 40 civil society bodies and umbrella groups who charged that the government intended to use a law restricting NGO operations "to curb the activities of all associations and NGOs that advocate for the rights of marginalized groups within Cambodian society."

The groups, Oxfam, the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), and the NGO Coalition to Address Trafficking & Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia, demanded an "immediate reversal" of the suspension.

With relatively few computers in the impoverished country, Internet cafes have become a crucial outlet for critics who want to go online. Using proximity to schools appears to serve as a handy method of getting rid of them.

Accordingly, Phnom Penh internet cafes received the circular on Dec. 15, signed by the Ministry of Telecommunications and purporting to establish rules of control over public commercial services. The persons writing it seemed to compare internet cafes to brothels and apparently were unable to distinguish internet cafes from video arcades.

And, while Cambodian internet cafes do sometimes resemble arcades where students and others congregate to play games on computer screens, it is also where government critics operate.

Said Licadho's Director Naly Pilorge by email: "We don't know the number of Internet cafes potentially affected by the circular. We are concerned, however, that this circular is a preview of what is to come when the government enacts the so-called "Cybercrime law," which has been rumored for a while – though not made public by the government. All of the actual crimes that the circular purports to address are already illegal. The circular's sole purpose seems to be to create unjustifiable obstacles to Internet access. We believe this is a transparent attempt to block part of the population's access to independent sources of information through news sites and social media.

There are few opponents of limiting access to video games on the part of students, but the comparison of internet cafes with video arcades isn't correct. In a country where very few children and youth enjoy the benefits of the Internet and few schools have a computer room, critics say the order to banish public PCs from the schools' areas is astonishing and senseless.

A more sound rule could work to integrate those internet cafes to the schools' educational systems. They are by themselves public computer rooms and cheap digital libraries where students can find the windows to science, technology and culture.

(With reporting by Albeiro Rodas, who blogs for Asian Correspondent.)