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Technical Ministry Staff Challenges Higher Authorities

By: Norbert Klein Posted: March-09-2011 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 706

Since a couple of weeks ago, there was confusing and contradicting information about Internet accessibility in Cambodia – not in general, but as a result of interference and censorship. Some web sites, critical of the government, were not accessible.

There were several confusing aspects:

  • The blocking did not happen at the same time at all Internet Service Providers [ISPs], so it could not be – as initially and unofficial claimed - a technical problem at the source; there were widely different explanations
  • "We do not know what happens"
  • "We don't block anything"
  • An error message, saying that the site had been “Blocked as ordered” by Ministry of Post and Telecommunications [MPTC], though this was later changed to “The requested URL could not be retrieved,” though there were also
  • High level statement that there is no government policy to block access to the Internet, but in spite of this, there were calls to stop such blocking, some in general, others calling on the government, issued by national and international organizations.

Clarity on the background – not on all facts and their legal aspects – surfaced finally when the Phnom Penh Post received access to and published information that the deputy director of the Directorate of Telecommunications Policy Regulation of the MPTC, Mr. Sieng Sithy, had sent a request to ten ISPs, to block the access to a number of web sites critical to the government, and he even sent a follow-up mail: “I am writing to extend my appreciation to you all for your cooperation with MPTC. Again and again, In case of not well cooperation is your own responsibility. Hightly appreciate for your cooperation,” mentioning also some ISPs that had not complied with his request: “We found that you are not yet taken an action, so please kindly take immediate action.”

In other notes from a meeting between ISPs and the MPTC from 10 February 2011, it is said: “In the meeting, His Excellency [Minister So Khun] said that the Royal Government did not have a principle of blocking some websites, but His Excellency made a request to all operators to cooperate in curbing some websites that affect Khmer morality and tradition and the government through using the internet.” Also later, Minister So Khun maintained his position that the government has no policy to censor websites. “We don’t have any policy to shut down, to close the sites,” he said. “Sometimes … there is a problem with the ISP.”

Mr. Paul Blanche-Horgan, CEO of the ISP EZEcom, had been quoted that he had not seen the Ministry’s email and that the reported blockage was a technical problem, but he did not know when it would be fixed. Still later, he was reported to have declined to comment, saying “I have no idea, mate. - I mean, you know, it’s ridiculous. I have no comment. Bye-bye.”

It is, of course, to be regretted that an effort to describe the events has to be based on a variety of pieces of information, and not on authoritative press releases. The Phnom Penh Post reported that neither Mr. Sieng Sithy, nor Minister So Khun, were prepared to talk to them. Should there be important pieces of information wrong in the present write-up, we are – as always – happy to receive documented corrections.

But there were also some statements which help to clarify how to understand what happened – and also, what might be appropriate reactions and actions to be taken.

Ms. Sok Channda, the CEO of Cambodia Data Communications, maintaining MekongNet and AngkorNet, said she had received the email, but no official letter from the government. “We work on letters, not email. If the government orders, they send us a letter. We do business under the government and the government allows us the license… We must follow but we cannot follow just email or phone call.”

This raises, of course, the question, why the leadership of other ISPs did not take the same stand, based on a clear application of principles of public administration.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith is quoted to have reacted similarly: “It surprised me that some ISP organizers accepted the email as an official letter” - and he referred to the responsibility of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication from where the problems originated. “If So Khun signed, then it is the position of the Ministry of Posts, but not the government, because from the Ministry of Information … we have not asked any ISPs to block any website.” The MPTC should “at least give the reason why they asked or ordered the ISPs to block the sites.”

The problematic e-mails were sent by the deputy director of the Directorate of Telecommunications Policy Regulation of the MPTC, Mr. Sieng Sithy. This is surprising, as such regulations in ministries of telecommunication normally relate to technical questions of frequency allocations, technical standards for telecommunication equipment and infrastructure, license fees, technical security standards etc. (see an example from South Africa, for training to achieving a Certificate in Telecommunications Policy, Regulation and Management). We will try to receive the regulations governing this department and its fields of responsibility.

If staff of this department have overstepped their assigned roles, their superiors will have to deal with it.

In the meantime, it is important to see that the Minister of Information is upholding the official Cambodian government policy. It may be remembered that there had already been another, similar difference of opinion, when The Mirror reported that the Minister of Information considered certain restrictive plans of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication to have “no legal basis." [The Passing of the Anti-Corruption Law, and Planned Changes in Telecommunications – Sunday, 14.3.2010]

The freedoms enumerated in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia should not be tampered with.

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 706 – Sunday, 6.3.2011
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror carries regular reports and comments from Cambodia - More about The Mirror


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