PHNOM PENH — In an information-technology world, the vast majority of Cambodians remain deprived. While the amount of information in the country has been growing significantly, compared with the dark past, as with everything else here information is being hoarded by the rich and powerful.

Ean Thorng knows. She returned to Cambodia in 1991 from a refugee camp in Thailand. Starting in 1994, she traveled from her home in the northwest province of Battambang to Phnom Penh; she was trying to get information about her husband, a government soldier who was killed in the civil war, and to collect the benefits due to her. For transport, food and help from her husband’s friends, she spent the equivalent of $350, a small fortune in Cambodia.

Her quest ended outside the Ministry of National Defense.

“I went to the front of the gate, and I dared not go inside,” she said. “I saw they had nice uniforms, and I thought they were high-ranking officials. I dared not go and ask them. I thought that they would not talk to me as I am an ordinary woman with simple clothes. Since then, I’ve lost hope, and I’ve decided to go back to Battambang.”

While most outsiders focus on the periodic clampdowns on freedom of expression in Cambodia, public access to information held by the government is even more tightly curtailed. It is a major impediment to the country’s halting attempts at reform since a 1991-93 U.N. peacekeeping mission ended the war. Cambodia calls itself a democracy, like Thailand and the Philippines. But in terms of access to information, the country is more similar to its other Southeast Asian neighbors, communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos.

In Cambodia, only two-thirds of adults are literate. The information infrastructure is so undeveloped that few people have phones. These factors combine with a deep-seated culture of authoritarianism and secrecy to inhibit the information flow.

While still only a trickle compared with Thailand, the flow of information in Cambodia increased during the 1990s, with the transition from war to peace and from a communist to a free-market system, the birth of the free press and nongovernment organizations and the arrival of foreign investors, aid groups and lending institutions. The political stability that has prevailed since the 1998 election also has helped.

But many of today’s government leaders also led the communist regime of the 1980s, and their attitudes have changed little. Important information is tightly kept within a small circle around Prime Minister Hun Sen. Only he and close aides were involved in talks this year with the United Nations on establishing a joint tribunal for those blamed for the Khmer Rouge atrocities of the 1970s. The agreement they signed has been kept secret, even though the issue concerns every Cambodian. Hun Sen’s party can thus better control any effects the process may have on its grip on power.

Much nonsensitive, routine information is trapped in the top-down hierarchy of the bureaucracy. Lower-level officials are not given any information by their superiors. When officials do have information, they fear they will get into trouble if they give it out without a specific go-ahead from above.

“It is not in the Khmer psyche to share information,” said Bill Herod, an NGO worker in Phnom Penh who deals with information issues. “This goes back to the days of secrecy and revolutionary struggle going (in) the 1970s. People who survived all that survived because they did not share information. Information is power. You have it, you have power. You lose it, you lose power.”

Most citizens don’t even consider asking for information because they see government officials as oppressive, officious bullies who would never give them anything unless they received a bribe. We recently randomly interviewed 22 people on the streets of Phnom Penh. None had ever sought information from the government. One person, a motorbike repairman, said: “Even if I wanted to get any information from them, they would not release it to me. Only if I had money would they give it to me. You know, the rich people are powerful. If they want anything, they can get it.”

Unlike Malaysia and Singapore, Cambodia does not have a host of laws and regulations restricting access to information. Rather, the problem is the lack of established procedures, which makes access dependent upon the whims of officials in the civil and military bureaucracies, both controlled by Hun Sen’s party.

Generally, most macroeconomic and social data are readily available. Information about the military and defense or high government officials is off-limits. Business and corporate information is closely guarded, partly because officials often make illegal and corrupt deals with businessmen.

The NGOs have played a major role in prying information from the government and in digging up information on their own and publicly disseminating it. They have been lobbying for the rule of law and transparency, including greater access to information. All the major NGOs are funded by foreign countries and institutions.

The U.N. Center for Human Rights and local human-rights groups such as Licadho and ADHOC have investigated violations and documented information that had never been widely shared in Cambodia before: appalling conditions inside the country’s prisons, the torture of detainees by police and military officials, the involvement of officials in sex slavery and trafficking. The Documentation Center of Cambodia has collected 600,000 documents and 25,000 photographs to record the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era.

The Cambodian newspapers, filled mostly with rumor and invective, are providing more factual information and exposing government corruption and abuses. The editor of the leading daily, Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia), Pen Samitthy, said officials are learning they need to give information to reporters, but it’s still a difficult process. For several years, he has been trying without success to see the contract between the government and a Malaysian company for the construction of a casino-resort. Some people suspect that corruption was involved.

Many significant records don’t exist here. Birth certificates and land titles were among many documents destroyed during the conflicts since 1970. Much basic financial information is not available because Cambodia’s economy and legislative framework are primitive. There is no stock market, so information about companies is limited; casinos are a huge business here, but there are no laws regulating them.

The government’s information infrastructure lacks everything: photocopy machines, filing cabinets, computer databases. Much important information is not collected because the bureaucracy lacks expertise, funds and motivation.

A few years ago, with foreign help, the government established information officers in each ministry. But I had to make several phone calls and office visits just to get a list of these officers. Few journalists ever call them anyway, because they rarely have any information.

The only statutory right to access to information is contained in the 1995 press law. But the law does not include any sanctions for officials who refuse to divulge information, nor procedures for appeal. In any case, the law only covers journalists. Unlike Thailand, there is no freedom-of-information act for all citizens.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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