Cambodia’s Draft Cyber Law Threatens Free Speech
Image Credit: Voice of America

Cambodia’s Draft Cyber Law Threatens Free Speech

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A leaked draft of Cambodia’s anti-cybercrime bill has human rights groups worried about several provisions that could be used by authorities to further suppress free speech in the country.

The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s premier English-language newspaper, has reported that the bill was drafted by the Cybercrime Law Formulation Working Group of the Council of Ministers. The London-based media advocacy group Article 19 was able to obtain an unofficial English translation of the document.

The government first announced its intention to pass an anti-cybercrime law in 2012; although it has been advocating for stricter Internet regulation since 2010. In 2011, it was accused of ordering internet service providers to block certain websites that are critical to the government.

Cambodia’s proposed cyber law is ostensibly designed to improve safety for Internet users and protect “legitimate interests.” Similar to the cybercrime laws of other countries, Cambodia’s bill also has specific provisions on data interference, computer fraud, illegal access, and child pornography.

But activists have highlighted article 28 of the bill as a concern. The provision would criminalize web content that “hinders the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia.” If this is not vague enough, the same provision penalizes any online publication that “generates insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.” What exactly is the crime of “political cohesiveness?”

Another criminal offense is the publication of Internet material that is deemed to be “non-factual which slanders or undermines the integrity of governmental agencies, ministries, not limited to departments, federal or local levels.” This would clearly discourage criticism of government officials.

As expected, publishing something that is deemed “damaging to the moral and cultural values of society” is prohibited. The bill even specified these harmful values: “Writings or pixilation that display inappropriate activities of persons, copulations between humans or animals; or devalue the moral of family values and pixilation that displays domestic violence.”

The aim of this particular provision is to prevent political cartoonists from using cyberspace to spread their message.

Aside from jail terms of one to three years, those found guilty of committing cybercrimes would face a fine of two million to six million riel ($500 to $1,500). Critics noted that the penalties prescribed in the cyber bill are tougher than they are under existing laws.

The proposed cyber bill was drafted without the benefit of public consultation. Opponents will be hoping that the hostile reaction of advocacy groups and netizens to the content of the leaked draft will encourage the government to revise the document.

But the current political crisis in Cambodia may well mean more online repression. During last year’s election, the opposition successfully tapped the power of social media to recruit supporters and gain more votes. Young people openly criticized politicians and corruption in the government through online platforms. Since TV stations are dominated by pro-government companies, news about the labor strikes and opposition rallies in recent months were reported and widely shared through the Internet.

Is the proposed cybercrime legislation intended to restrict the role of the Internet in spreading dissent? What is clear is that the bill, if passed in its present form, would shackle Cambodia’s burgeoning Internet community.

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