By Marta Kasztelan
Aug 6, 2013
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PHNOM PENH - The recently concluded general elections in Cambodia, won
narrowly by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), highlighted the
growing political role of social media. Throughout the election period,
Facebook users took to their smart phones and computers to share
information and on polling day report electoral irregularities.
Although the vast majority of Cambodians still live in the countryside, changes in technology and demography mean that more and more young people are joining social networking sites.
According to social media agency We Are Social, currently one new user
joins Facebook every two minutes in Cambodia, translating to an average
of 1,000 new members per day.
Social media users were among the 3.5 million 18- to 30-year-olds
registered to cast ballots in the July 28 elections for the National
Assembly. (Altogether there were 9.5 million registered voters). While
many youth voters expressed their discontent with the CPP by voting in
large numbers for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),
they also rallied for political and social change online.
"Facebook was a great space for the public to air their concerns about
the elections, and it was one of the very few platforms with independent
information, because most media are controlled by the CPP and were
peddling pro-government news," said Un Samnang, a report writer at
election watchdog Comfrel.
Civil society organizations criticized the lack of independent media and
censorship measures introduced by authorities ahead of the elections.
Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, condemned a
government-imposed ban forbidding local radio stations from broadcasting
foreign media commentaries and opinion polls during the five days prior
to the elections and on the polling day.
"We strongly condemn the failure to rescind this directive, which
tramples on freedom of information. The authorities are clearly trying
to restrict voter access to radio programs that are outspoken and do not
toe the government line. Unobstructed access to independent news and
information is the cornerstone of any free election," the watchdog group
said in a statement.
Even though the ban did not apply to local media outlets, most radio
stations chose to self-censor their news during the week before the
election out of fears of losing their operating licenses, Comfrel's
Samnang said. He underlined that Facebook helped to fill the news void
by allowing people to keep each other abreast of new developments in the
days before the election.
When on election day a popular Facebook page "I Love Cambodia Hot News"
posted a video of a fight at a polling station after allegations of vote
rigging, it was almost immediately shared by 1,326 users and "liked" by
Social media users also called on fellow Cambodians to return to polling
stations and observe the ballot count. According to a social media
specialist at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Lach Vannak, young
voters posted photographs of their own ballot count and were fearless in
"Seventy percent of all Cambodians are below the age of 35. Most of them
have no recollection of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. They are
young and are not afraid to say what they think. Facebook became a
place where they share and discuss the latest news," Vannak said.
Both the CPP and CNRP tapped into social media, with the latter relying
more on the platform due to its restricted access to mainstream Khmer
media. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy used his Facebook page to reach out
to youth voters and to galvanize support for his party. Even the
announcement about his return from self-imposed exile a week before the
polls first appeared on a social networking site.
Using Facebook for political gains, however, does not come without a
cost. Vannak points out that now voters will follow-up on campaign
promises. "People begin recording what you promise and they will demand
that you follow through," he said. "So Facebook could play a role in
making the new government more transparent and accountable."
According to 26-year-old political science graduate Ou Ritthy this trend
goes beyond the elections. Ritthy, who is organizing informal
discussions about politics for youth in Phnom Penh, believes Facebook is
becoming a place for social justice and democracy debates and will
eventually lead to a change in political culture.
"We organize small meetings in real life, but the most significant
conversations take place on Facebook. I like to post controversial
statements and provoke an online discussion. Democracy was born out of
discussion," he said.
Ritthy thinks that young people using social media to talk about
politics and current affairs are the future of Cambodia. "They will be
our leaders. And I am not only talking about political leaders. One day,
they will be leaders of a family or a community."