Battambang (Cambodia). 11/12/2006: an internet café. (Photo: John Vink/ Magnum)
By Duong Sokha
Ka-set in English
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Since the Internet officially appeared in Cambodia in 1997 when the first Network Operating Centre (NOC) offered its services, this communication means for the broadcasting of information has become popular throughout country, together with the development of cable and satellite television and radio. But after more than a decade, the development of this communications medium is becoming a source of worry for the Ministry of Information, concerned about the potential impact of new technologies on the Cambodian society. The Ministry aims at putting down in writing a few regulations concerning “broadcasting services used via electronic systems” in a law which is currently in the process of being drafted. According to the Ministry of Information, the new legal document will not apply to news websites (such as Ka-set), since the main goal here would be to control the broadcasting of audiovisual data, games, entertainment and online advertisements, in order to make sure that rules – of a rather moral nature – are respected by all.
A response to technological evolutions
With the development of new technologies, the Ministry of Information of Cambodia has had to adjust to a wider scope of responsibilities. The Ministry, already in charge of regulating the usual analogue-audiovisual services, which include to the present day twenty-five radio stations and seven television channels broadcast in Phnom and/or Cambodia's provinces, had to extend its control to satellite radio and television, and, progressively, to these same means of communication, but broadcast via the internet, as explained by Nouv Sovathero, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Information and in charge of drafting the Bill, which will gather 12 chapters and 67 articles.
“Radio and television services have a strong influence on listeners and viewers”, he says. “The aim of this law is therefore to check on any broadcasting activity carried out via electronic systems, including the broadcasting of public shows”.
The new law will apply to audiovisual broadcasting via the Internet but also to mobile phones, the use of which has become commonplace in the space of a few years in the country. Today, mobile phone users can listen to the radio, watch the television and share texts, sounds and images.
By extending its responsibilities, the Ministry of Information's main goal is, according to the Secretary of State, to ensure the respect of good morals. “For instance, if we hear that there may be Internet games which have a negative impact on youngsters, or on the society as a whole, the Ministry of Information, in collaboration with the concerned authorities, will issue a warning to the person in possession of a broadcasting licence or will simply confiscate it”, Nouv Sovathero argues. “We will also make sure that advertisement reaches a certain standard of quality so that the interdiction to broadcast abusive or misleading announcements is duly respected.”
A double licence for local Internet service providers
The new text will define a legal frame for people in charge of editing audiovisual data online and for Internet service providers (ISP), whether they be companies or individuals, whose responsibilities are above all technical. Providers who are currently required to apply for a licence at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications before being able to be fully functional, will have to apply for a second licence at the Ministry of Information if the law is enforced. The team in charge of drafting the law issued these recommendations on the basis that Internet service providers are the ones who allow users to surf the web and access data on the network. Therefore, since they are classified as data producers and distributors, they should also be accountable to the Ministry of Information. Here again, the clear objective is to prohibit the broadcasting of obscene sounds and images...
Nouv Sovathero cited the example of images displayed on a blog and the recent subject of controversy, representing topless Apsaras standing in sensual poses, which according to him might shock the Cambodian public and arouse sexual impulses among internet surfers. The law would then allow the control of such content. The Secretary of State gave another example: “If a website displays the picture of a beautiful Cambodian actress and makes a montage with the body of a naked person, which Ministry is entitled to react to this, at the moment? The Ministry of Culture? Or the Interior?With the new law, the Ministry of Information will have prime responsibility over that as it will control the broadcasting of all audiovisual data”, the official observed.
Lessons of good manners for TV and radio presenters
In the same fashion, the law also stipulates the creation of a training centre intended for television and radio presenters. There, they would follow a training course meant to provide them with “manners” and the art of expressing oneself using an academic and refined Khmer language.
“Most of our presenters are not professional and besides, they are not acknowledged by our Ministry [of Information]”, Nouv Sovathero deplores. Some speak Khmer with a heavy foreign accent! It is something that worries us. With the new law, they will be required to be of Cambodian descent, able to read and express themselves in accordance with the rules of Khmer grammar. Foreign presenters who speak Khmer will not be authorised to exercise any longer, due to their incorrect and inaccurate pronunciation”, the Secretary of State detailed, insisting on the fact that the point was to make people respect “morality” in programmes broadcast throughout Cambodia...
End of 2009, kick off
The text of the bill, now complete, was handed to the director-general of the General Department of Information and Audiovisual at the Ministry to be examined and will soon be passed onto an ad hoc committee chaired by the Minister of Information, for new examination.
Before its submission to MPs, Nouv Sovathero observes, the text will then be “sifted through” by all those it concerns: holders of a licence for audiovisual broadcasting and representatives of the radio, television, cable channels sectors but also Internet service providers.
The Secretary of State also claimed he requested the financial and technical help of Internews, a France-based non-governmental organisation for the empowering of local media worldwide, in order to organise at least three seminars with a view to collect opinions on the law before jurists at the Council of Ministers take over the task and examine it. “We received positive answers from the NGO. Our goal is to make sure that all those who are concerned by the law can take part in this process so we can create a law that is efficient and acceptable to all”, he insisted, adding that if things went as planned, the law should be presented to MPs for a final vote at the end of 2009.
The law, according to Nouv Sovathero, only fills the gaps present in the system, as more and more people find an interest in these new means of audiovisual data broadcasting.
According to Sar Ratana, who chairs the Department of Regulations at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, some thirty Internet service providers are registered to the present day in Cambodia, with however less than ten of them being fully operational. Besides, the Ministry holds records of some two hundred Internet cafés throughout the country, figures which are far below the reality of things, since many owners do not follow the necessary steps to obtain a licence. And according to the same governmental sources, the official number of Internet users in Cambodia does not exceed 18,000 people (data made public in October 2008 following a seminar on information and communication technologies). Here again, reality seems to go past official statistics. A private study carried out in 2008 for the Miniwatts Marketing group about the use of the Internet worldwide, available on the “Internet World Stats ” website takes into account estimations made by the International Communications Union which state that there are at least 70,000 regular Internet users in Cambodia today. And the flow of users should increase considerably in the next few months and years, as it is the case in most Asian countries.
With the elaboration of this law regulating digital broadcasting, the Ministry of Information hopes to follow the evolutions of modern technology. As for the Internet, other regulations are also planned, starting with a law on electronic trade.
News websites not affected
According to Nouv Sovathero, the law on “broadcasting services used via electronic systems” will not concern online journalists but their work will continue to be subject to the 1995 Press Law. “The new law is not meant to control news editors but to manage general broadcasting online. Therefore this law shall not apply to news websites”, the Secretary of State commented. If a news website broadcasts inaccurate information, the Ministry of Information will react, the official, who was himself a journalist once, detailed. Journalists who work exclusively for online media, not coupled with a printable medium, are already entitled to a press card in Cambodia. The director of the Media Centre in relation with the Ministry of Information, pointed out that some 1,800 press cards were given out to Cambodian journalists and around 500 to foreign journalists in 2008, all media taken together... It is the case of Ka-set journalists.