The number of Internet users in Cambodia is rising in a country with one of the biggest digital gap in the region. However, there is a fear of a possible online censorship that could come through the weaving of a detailed legislation, as it has been used for example in traditional media since 2008 with laws that include vague provisions that can undermine freedom of expression, according to Licadho, the Cambodian human rights defender. In this sense, it is understandable that the announcement of the first official law on telecommunication service use creates worries over if a new law would intend to turn off dissident voices over the Cambodian cyberspace. One thing is clear: Internet is becoming very important for the development of Cambodia in many senses and even if Cambodia is portrayed as a country with evident limits to freedom of press, it is also one of the freer on Internet usage, though the number of users still low.

Cambodian children using computers at the first and only academic Cafe Internet of Cambodia at Don Bosco City campus in Kep Province. Students of journalism and communication assist the children to develop their digital skills in a formative manner. 'These children will be authentic digital natives and they are located far from the main stream of development in Cambodia, so it is an opening of opportunities for them,' said volunteer educator David Agudelo. Photo Al Rodas, 11/17/2012

The fear of those who think that a law on Internet use could be an instrument to persecute dissident users is not vain. It is enough to see the restrictions expressed in some Cambodian laws, where any person can be accountable of prosecution under the accusation of defamation without an authentic modern procedure.

Cambodia needs of course an online legislation and it is an obligation of the State to protect the cyberspace from criminal behaviors that could put in danger the national security and the vulnerability of the people. But it is true also that Cambodian lacks a law on freedom of expression, one that protects the rights to say and the rights to dissent without the fear of a prosecution or suspension,  while promoting more ethics in schools to really fight corruption that is not only present in the public administration, but also in current life.

Reducing digital gap

There are several official programs and plans leaded by NGOs to reduce digital gap in Cambodia. Since the introduction of Internet in the Kingdom on January 1987 by the Russian Estation Intersputnik in Phnom Penh, the Internet has been extended to the main Cambodian cities, especially Siem Reap, Battamban and Sihanoukville. In 2009 there were 78,500 Internet users registered, less than 0,5 percent of the Cambodian population, while putting Cambodia in the place 166 of the global use of Internet. In Vietnam there where in that same year 20 million Internet users, meaning much more than the entire Cambodian population that is near to 15 million.

In a post by journalist Faine Greenwood (Cambodia Not Online, 2011.) it is said that the primary obstacle to reduce the digital gap in the country is the lack of infrastructures: ‘Many people don’t even have electricity and running potable water, much less a personal computer of their own,’ she concluded.

The growing social gap in Cambodia is evidently consistent with the digital gap. Internet can become a luxury for the most privileged groups of the country, most of them in the biggest centers. Most Cambodian primary and secondary schools lack IT master plans for their alumni and a computer classroom is rare in more educational centers. If teachers’ salary for primary and secondary schools remain low, there is not an official hurry to introduce teachers into a digital culture, moreover, many schools have not even electricity, so how they could have Internet access. According to a research by the United nations (Building E-Communicyt Centers for Rural Development, 2005), one of the reasons Cambodia remains back in the region for its digital gap is not only the situation of poverty, but also the lack of skillful personnel ready to support the Internet growing.

According to official data, there were more than one million Internet users in 2011 that would represent a 70% increase, an estimate of 3,000 Cambodian bloggers and more than 700 thousand Facebookers, putting year 2011 as a significant time for the reduction of the Cambodian digital gap. But such increase does not spread over the country as it is expected, but continues centralized in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, the fourth largest urban centers of Cambodia, letting the rest of the country in a similar situation previous to 2011.

Internet and Education

For Mr. Teng Prach, 19, student of journalism at the Don Bosco Vocational Center in Kep City and a blogger writing about his native Kampot Province, Internet is essentially a tool to support his work and formation. ‘It is important for the development of my own life… I find blogging, social networks… useful to share information about Kampot, my region, for the people to know,‘ he says.

In the school of journalism and social communication, Mr. Brach studies not only IT, but especially content creation, ethics and critical thinking. ‘When I began I thought it was about IT only, to say about how to deal with software and hardware, but then I got that it is most important the fact about what we inform that to just share things, he explains.

Another student of social communication, Mr. Nget Ngean, 21, explains that children and teenagers in Cambodia are prompt to become addict to video games and karaoke online and it must be attended soon through education. ‘It is good we have more computers and Internet access in Cambodia, but if children and young people come to these means alone, we are going to have many video games addicts,‘ he prevents.

IT programs in schools or universities should not limit to technical issues. Information Technology is not only about fixing cables, but opening minds to work for a social development. ‘I use the Internet to improve my own skill that is audiovisual edition and production and I can find thousands of pages about what I want,’ said Mr. Ngean about the way he uses Internet.

Teacher Try Seyha is the manager of the electrical department and he is a consecrated Internet user based in Facebook. ‘I use the Internet to update my knowledge. Before I keep on reading my own text books to prepare lessons to my students, but now I use Internet and it gives me an unique opportunity, it’s easy, fast and I get the last advances of science,‘ he said. ‘Only in a site like Youtube I can watch electrical lessons from foreign countries and it is I have a living library in my computer.’

Mr. David Agudelo, 21, is a Colombian volunteer at Don Bosco school in Kep and his work consists in the organization of the Phum Thmey Cafe Internet, an academic experience inside the campus. ‘The purpose of this space here is that children and youth from the village have the opportunity to enjoy, learn and open their minds through a new experience provided by new technologies,‘ he says.

But how to deal with video games?

My own experience is that a kid is a kid and when coming to a computer he or she will always look what children look: to play. We should not cut it and we should not fear children play video games. But we should stay with them and lead them to another things with more educative perspectives, to conduct their process well,‘ explains the volunteer who is also a student of philosophy and education. After playing, children start to look on other options and in this case schools must be in connection. Teachers must promote that their students get curiosity about research. You ask them where is Europe and you show them that they can use a search engine, so they will discover another world.’

Khmer language still of low use online, although it is growing thanks to the work of universities, schools and official agencies and the development of Khmer Unicode. But children and youth will find mostly Latin scripts web pages everywhere. Is it an obstacle for them?

‘In this academic cafe Internet we have for example the assistance of the students of social communication, so children and youth are not alone. However, English is not a difficulty for Cambodian kids, because anyway it is a lingua franca and they can get the concepts… Two weeks ago two teenagers came to the cafe and they went to look for information about hip hop. When I asked them why they were looking for it, they answered that there are two foreigners living near their houses and they use to speak about hip hop. Curious about such concept, they look for the cafe Internet and open their own research… so I find such attitude too scientific and then we need to promote it.’