Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The government blocked access to independent media websites just hours before polling in the country’s controversial national election begins.
Phos Sovann, director general of information and broadcasting at the Information Ministry, confirmed a total of 17 websites – including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of Democracy, and the Phnom Penh Post – had been targeted.
“We requested to our committee members, along with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Telecommunications, to close those websites down,” he said.
The National Election Committee requested political parties and media outlets to “remain silent” for a 24-hour period in advance of election day on Sunday.
The government edict comes a week after a sudden proliferation of WhatsApp groups, in which potentially hundreds of Cambodians found themselves added to chats through the Facebook-owned messenger service.
Sovann requested internet service providers to block the sites for 48 hours, while other news sites friendly to strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen‘s regime remained accessible online.
“We observed that the contents of those new media are provocative. Those contents are very political in their tendencies, and they are restricting to the election,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s unfair … It’s just for 48 hours before the election.”
The move comes during a political and media crackdown in Cambodia.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested on questionable allegations of treason in September last year and his party was dissolved by the Supreme Court – led by a member of the ruling party – leaving some three million voters disenfranchised and the election without a viable opposition.
More than 30 radio frequencies were taken off-air and the Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down after being slapped with an “exorbitant” tax bill. Former RFA journalists have been jailed and the Phnom Penh Post was sold to a businessman with government links, while Cambodia’s press-freedom rankings dropped 10 places to 142nd globally.
Human rights group Licadho confirmed on Saturday several internet service providers and mobile companies were actively blocking independent media outlets.
“This is the first web censorship since the release of the prakas (government edict) on media in late May 2018,” Licadho’s Naly Pilorge told Al Jazeera.
“We are outraged that private companies would block access to individual media outlets while charging full prices for their services to their clients. It’s neither good business practices or in line with international rights or standards of promoting freedom of expression, opinions and beliefs.”
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media expressed “grave concern” over the move.
“CCIM considers the blocking of the websites by the government as politically motivated and counterproductive,” the group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, in the past week, Cambodians appear to have been systematically added en masse to a variety of WhatsApp groups, which can host 256 people each.
For now, the groups remain dormant, but their presence has sparked concerns they could be used to rapidly spread information, misinformation or propaganda.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the move could be a two-step method of controlling the information flow: blocking websites unfriendly towards the government, while setting up a WhatsApp infrastructure to flood desired messages to the public.
“It really shows how there’s a tremendous amount of manipulation of mobile accounts,” he said. “It raises some real issues of privacy and human rights.”
Additional reporting by Kong Meta