Cambodia: Internet censorship targets artists

As the number of Internet users has been growing rapidly in Southeast Asia in recent years, online censorship has proliferated, from China to Cambodia, as if it runs through the Mekong river.

Not only the “Great Firewall of China” that is known to many people, democratic country like Thailand also blocks a large number of Web sites; in Vietnam, its Ministry of Information and Communication has recently released a circular to regulate and enforce blogging rules in the country in late 2008. With rules and regulations in place, these governments have developed and deployed their own censorship machine to control how citizens publish and access online contents.

Although Cambodia has the lowest Internet penetration rate (70,000 users as of 2007), artists, however, are more recognized not through offline exhibitions, but their presence on the world wide web. This increasing use of blog to reach out larger audiences attracts more than attention and support.

A former freelance editorial cartoonist for Far Eastern Economic Review from 1997-1999, Bun Heang Ung presently lives in Australia. Observing his home country Cambodia from the other side, the 57-year-old cartoonist launched Sacrava Toons blog in 2004, nearly a decade after he published ‘The Murderous Revolution : Life and Death in Pol Pot's Kampuchea,’ his first book of black and white line illustrations that tells his very own experiences of the Khmer Rouge regime. In voicing his opinions, the talented cartoonist publish his drawings of all things that matter to him on the Web. In one of his recent posts, he used ‘I have a dream’ as a backdrop for his illustration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States.

Barack Obama, illustrated by Bun Heang Ung

Recently, according to Wikileaks, the political cartoonist's blog is being blocked in Thailand, where its Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is in charge of banning Internet sites that violates its Kingdom's lèse majesté.

Cambodian blogger Thom Vanak, at Blog By Khmer, made his point on the issue:

Regarding Lèse majesté, although I think it's archaic and outdated law in this day and age, but nevertheless, it's still Thai's law. If I ever set my foot on Thai soil I would respect their laws. The same if I'm to visit any other country, I would respect the local laws of that country.

While the prominent cartoonist's blog appears on censorship list (as of 20 Dec 2008) by Thailand, the Cambodian Ministry of Women's Affairs, in December last year, threatened to block a Web site that contains artistic illustrations of bare-breasted Apsara dancers and a Khmer Rouge soldier. The attempt to shut down (or at least to filter it by Internet Service Providers in the Cambodian capital) was echoed by a human rights activist, who was quoted as saying that “the Web site should be shut down because it appealed too much to young Cambodians.” is currently not accessible by Internet visitors in Cambodia, while there is no issue with access in the U.S. The error message appears:

Screenshot of site being filtered by Cambodia's Internet Service Providers

Cambodia's most prominent anonymous blog author at ‘Cambodia: Details are Sketchy’ wrote about the controversial issue:

“If anyone should understand the value of free speech, the deputy director of communication and advocacy at Licadho seems a likely candidate. It is disheartening that Vann Sophath supports censoring Reahu’s illustrations”

Artist Reahu posted a note on his site, recently becoming popular after gaining media attentions in the past few months, in response to his critics:

Judging from the complaints, I wonder how we as Khmer will be able to make it in the 21st Century. Please be open-minded, you must be able to see beyond the four walls surrounding your hut.


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