Kamnotra emerges as the latest platform in a ‘news-starved’ Cambodia

Kamnotra website

A major section of the website is about the documentation on land conflicts across the country. Source: Twitter post of Kamnotra

A new website was launched by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) amid the forced closure of independent media outlets and the dismantling of civic spaces in Cambodia.

Kamnotra, “for the record” in Cambodian, compiles relevant government information and summarizes them for both local and international readers. They explain:

[We] record data on critical issues that have affected the country in order to put them in context for both domestic and international audiences. The databases will serve as a repository for data and analysis that will hopefully guide the first draft of Cambodian history.

In an email interview with this author, CCIM media director Ith Sotheouth described Kamnotra as “an important and needed platform in a news-starved environment.”

Cambodia is lacking when it comes to official transparency, including data availability. The few government decisions made public are images, not text, or else scattered across Facebook; court documents are largely unavailable; information about local areas or marginalized groups are even more obscured. Much critical information in the country requires investigations or field visits to get. With the loss of independent media outlets, the public has lost access to critical information.

In a precarious media landscape where false narratives and propaganda are projected as fact and news, access to clear and accurate information is paramount. CCIM’s goal is to provide the Cambodian people with the information they need to make informed decisions.

VOD, another CCIM project, is among the independent media websites whose licenses were revoked by the government last February for their critical reporting. A month later, three more Khmer-language online outlets were also shut down.

The closure of independent media was accompanied by a crackdown on opposition forces as the Hun Sen government targeted dissent ahead of the July general election. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years, attacked the opposition and media as he consolidated his control of power and promoted the ascendancy of his son Hun Manet within the ruling party.

In this context, the launching of a website like Kamnotra is a significant initiative in addressing Cambodian people’s right to information.

Ith Sotheouth explained the major features of the Kamnotra website. He wrote via email:

Despite the fact that government documents have been released tremendously in the digital age, those documents are scattered or in formats which cannot be accessed easily. Kamnotra compile those data in simple and user-friendly formats making it easy for Cambodian people to access. The team has been patiently and tirelessly digitizing and indexing those documents, especially the Royal Gazette, documents released by the Council of Ministers collating important government decisions. Importantly, they have also laboriously synthesized these dense documents and provided a snapshot of what they mean to users in an easy-to-use database. The site also touches on land conflicts, including the long standing and new ones. The use of an interactive map gives the database more functionality and is highly effective at illustrating the scale of the issue. One look at the land disputes map and you are aware of the scale of the problem.

Another major section of the website is about the group’s documentation of land conflicts. Cambodian citizens have reportedly been involved in at least 120 land conflicts between 2019-2023, primarily in incidents where state officials transferred land to corporations, connected individuals, or government officials and their families.

Land conflicts are probably the most common issue faced by Cambodian, with many rural residents lacking official land titling to hold on to their land, which is often either taken by the government or privatized to companies operating here. It is an issue that is longstanding and with vast troves of data and information. When we were operating VOD, we would often face an issue with keeping track of these disputes or getting reliable background information on a conflict. So it made sense to use this existing knowledge base around land conflicts to document them, map out the disputes and clearly present information about the hundreds of land conflicts across Cambodia.

He shared some of the challenges CCIM faced in developing the project:

After the closure of VOD, some staff left the organization to get states job offered by the government and other reasons. The process of starting a database is laborious, especially if you are trying to compile information from the past, translate them into English and make sure both websites, that is in English and Khmer, are a mirror of each other. It takes our staff a long time to read through these dense documents, understand what they mean, translate them and input them into the database. So while a small team has done quick work to get this website up, it has been very hard work and required some additional training to match people's skill sets to the work. We have to think of ways to make it unique or different other existing platforms.

Barely a month after the launch, Kamnotra was banned by Cambodian authorities. In a July 12 letter, the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia ordered local internet service providers to block Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia (which is funded by the United States government), and Kamnotra for allegedly disseminating “information to sow confusion and undermine the honor and prestige of the government.”

Kamnotra can still be accessed through Virtual Private Network. Despite the blocking, which was done ahead of the July 23 election, Kamnotra continues to find ways on social media to reach out to its audience and provide the public with reliable information.

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