New Economic and Social Landscape in Cambodia Attracts More Users to the Internet
January 21, 2015
In 2014, internet usage in Cambodia grew at a rate of 42.7 percent, according to a report released by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications last year. This sharp growth rate is being driven by an increasingly dominant youth demographic that aspires to connect to each other and the world around them, inside and outside Cambodia, according to a study we recently co-published on mobile phone and internet usage in Cambodia. The survey found that much of the growth of internet usage is based on increasing use of smartphones for taking, sending, and receiving pictures using Facebook, YouTube, and messaging Apps. They are going online to find jobs, relationships, and to connect with others. This is good news for Cambodia, which is hoping to benefit from economic integration with a tech-powered ASEAN.
As part of this integration youth are seeking to fulfill expanding expectations in a rapidly changing society and economy; they say they are seeking to be a part of a regional, if not global, community. This matters a lot. Older generations who aren’t on the net are getting left far behind when it comes to the exchange of information. But with this booming increase in internet usage, Cambodia’s government is struggling with creating appropriate laws for this new generation of netizens. Naturally, given the youth bulge, moves to restrict, censure, or overtly monitor social media users in Cambodia is likely to be unpopular, and seen as a step backwards, rather than looking ahead toward prosperity and a more modern future. The government’s announcement last month that the cybercrimes law has been shelved likely reflects the challenges inherent in these shifting realities.
The challenges that the Cambodian Government faces are real and there will be mounting pressure around issues of freedom of expression in the run up to the next local and national elections in 2017 and 2018. On Sunday, civil society leaders urged the two major political parties to scrap plans to ban them from giving media interviews during election campaigns, citing it as a “setback” to democracy in Cambodia, as reported in Cambodia Daily. While current use of the internet in Cambodia for political ends is actually a very small fraction of what youth are doing while online, many governments across the globe have and will continue to struggle with the controversial issues raised in Cambodia’s cybercrimes draft law, such as incitement and defamation. Cambodian and international legal experts caution that the laws need to take into account that there are new tools, and the way that incitement and defamation have been handled in the courts is often too broadly construed or arbitrary. The arbitrary nature of these rulings has likely to contributed to a low public trust in the courts, according to The Asia Foundation’s third national survey on democratic development in Cambodia.
Further complicating the situation, legal experts say that Cambodia’s newly passed laws on the judiciary give the executive branch effective control over the judiciary but do not help to build the independence required to impartially address abuse of speech on the internet.
An immediate need in this rapidly shifting landscape, and one of mutual benefit for everyone, is to work to educate people who are online about what is and what is not appropriate and support the online community to learn to police itself. There’s a big opportunity for the government to take a lead in public education in this way, and if done through constructive engagement with the online community, users would likely feel heard and be more open to creating solutions together. And at the end of the day, being listened to is what appears to be motivating Cambodians to flock to the net in the first place. The government’s usage of the internet for the purpose of engaging citizens is beginning; plans for increased usage of social media for public communication are in the Ministry of Interiors’ next three-year implementation strategy for decentralization. This is an excellent step in the right direction.
Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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