Social media fires up Cambodian polls

When Cambodians went to the polls in July this year, social media not only posed a challenge to the traditional mainstream media but also to the country’s status quo.

With its hands holding a tight grip on the country’s traditional media, the Hun Sen government virtually ignored social media, while the main opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), strategically and heavily used the web-based platforms to reach out to young voters and build its support base.

While the elections were marred by irregularities the results also showed that the country’s electorate is yearning for change as shown by the large number of seats won by CNRP at the parliament. It was a reflection of the political mood that was prevalent in various social media outfits prior to the elections.

Election observers describe how social media – primarily Facebook and other online discussion platforms – completely changed the political environment in the country and encouraged the citizens to speak and voice out their opinions online. With social media sites, young voters turn to their smart phones for news, information about the candidates’ platforms, as well as to engage in political debates.

Cambodians shared news stories published by local and international media outlets and generated a substantial volume of online content, including discussions, photos and videos. First-hand reports of violence at polling stations, and political demonstrations were quickly uploaded and played a vital role in keeping the public as well as the mainstream media journalists informed of the latest events during the elections.

In a country of 14 million people where about half of this population is under 21 years old, mobile phone subscribers overtook fixed-line subscribers as early as 1993. The leapfrog effect did not stop. It has contributed to the rise of mobile Internet adoption, which enables owners to communicate, access, and share information.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the country’s six network providers sold 19.1 million SIM cards last year, far exceeding the nation’s population. Meanwhile on the popular networking site Facebook, there are more than 1,140,000 registered users in Cambodia.

Even if internet penetration is still very low in terms of the number of computer and mobile phone owners, many Cambodians have access to information via internet cafes or from their neighbors in the village, who own smart phone devices.

A project partner of Diakonia Cambodia, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) has built its social media presence among the information-hungry Cambodian Internet news consumers. CCIM, through its radio broadcast and online news site, Voice of Democracy (VOD), provides balanced news reports, especially focusing on the plight of the marginalized communities in the country. VOD journalists and citizen journalists have been equipped and trained to master mobile technology for news gathering, reporting, and production.

During a recent protest by the opposition party supporters in Phnom Penh, VOD’s digital journalist Tiang Vida “took photos of the rally and forwarded them to his editor via Facebook along with brief news updates. A few minutes later, his dispatches appeared online,” reported English-language newspaper The Phnom Penh Post.

This remarkable rise in popularity of social media among Cambodians, especially the youth, is seen to help transform the country’s political and media landscape by serving the need for more news and information, and more importantly, by amplifying the voices of Cambodian people.

This blog post was first appeared on Diakonia blog on 2013-10-25.

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