PHNOM PENH - The Cambodian government has ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block the websites of 15 independent new outlets, including Voice of America, for two days before and during the country's election.
An official Ministry of Information memo obtained by VOA orders the ISPs to block Voice of America's Khmer service, Radio Free Asia's Khmer service, Voice of Democracy, Vayo FM Radio, Monorom.info and the news site of the Independent Network for Social Justice on July 28 and 29 the day of the election.
Phos Sovann, chief of the Information Ministry's general Department of Information and Broadcasting, confirmed 15 websites in total were on the list.
"Frankly speaking, we cannot control the concerned media outlets. That's it," Sovann told VOA Khmer on Saturday.
"Cambodian laws do not allow any kind of broadcasting on these two days, including the White Day [and the Election Day]," he said.
Cambodia's electoral law imposes a "White Day" in which parties are forbidden from campaigning during the 24 hours before the ballot. It places no restriction on the media.
Asked why these specific websites were selected for the blockage and not other, pro-government sites, Sovann said the content published and broadcast by those outlets "concerned the obstructions as stated in the election law".
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only viable opposition to the ruling party, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. It has called on voters to boycott the election, which it says is a sham.
The government and the National Election Committee have argued this amounts to an obstruction of voters under the country's election law, in an interpretation rights groups have said is ridiculous.Cambodia does not enforce mandatory voting.
Cnrp7.org, Khmerpolitical.com, Khmersharingnews.com, Camnews.com, Stubes.info, Pinterest.de, Vithyu.com, Freecambodia.org, Akppure.com and Imnsj.org round out the list of blocked sites.
Sovann said the blocked outlets were citing sources who disrupted the election and were "abroad" referring to CNRP members who have fled into exile.
Cambodian netizens began complaining on social media Thursday night they had lost access to numerous news websites they routinely accessed, including RFA and VOA.
Voice of Democracy's media director Nop Vy confirmed that his website has been blocked since Friday.
"The independent media website block is an action is to control all reporting about election. It affects the access to information about election," Nop Vy said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, expressed "regrets" about the blockage.
"Ahead of the election, we want the public to access comprehensive information about the election process, policies of each party, and characteristics of party candidates," he said.
Without competition from the CNRP, which almost defeated the government at the last national election and won close to half of the popular vote in last year's commune election, the long ruling Cambodian People's Party is expected to win in a landslide on Sunday.
"We want our election environment to be calm so that the people are rightfully able to decide without consuming this kind of information [about the boycott]", Sovann said.
Im Vutha, spokesperson for the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia — a semi-autonomous body that oversees all the country's ISPs — confirmed the censorship of websites deemed to be provoking "election disruption."
"Whatever activities that affect and disturb the election, we take actions [against]," Im Vutha said.
"Any websites affecting and disturbing the election against the law, [we will] shut down."
National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said the NEC sent a letter yesterday to three related ministries — the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Interior — asking them to take action "against any activities disturbing the election process."
"If those relevant ministries find out that any information from those websites [is disturbing the election], they will take actions," he said. He added that the NEC hadn't specified which websites were to be blocked.
"If any websites publish information and with the intention of preventing people from going to vote, that is against the law," he said.
In late May, the three ministries formed a joint working group to investigate "fake news" at the same time that the government released a new directive handing them powers to monitor and "control" online reporting.
A letter dated April 18 from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to the Ministry of Information asked internet service providers to equip themselves with software that couldeasily filter or block any accounts and/or pages that publish content violating the law.
Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group, Licadho, told VOA the ISPs Cellcard and Opennet also were both blocking The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily.
Early this year, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications told all internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to block the website of The Cambodia Daily newspaper and its associated social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter pages, according to documents obtained by VOA Khmer.
The English-language Cambodia Daily, which had done independent journalism inside Cambodia since 1993, was forced to close in September last year amid a standoff with the General Department of Taxation over an alleged bill of $6.3 million worth of back taxes.
The government insisted it was merely implementing the law and that the taxes being sought were unrelated to Cambodia Daily's critical reporting in the past.
Since the paper's closure in September, Cambodian internet users have complained that the Daily's website has been unavailable on certain ISPs, making it more difficult to access the newspaper's extensive story archive.
VOA's Khmer Service contributed to this report