Media freedom is guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution but it is undermined since the mainstream media is largely controlled by families close to the ruling party. This is not the case for online media where censorship is almost non-existent. The government, however, is already targeting regulation of the Internet, which could further restrict free speech in the country.
In 2010, only 300,000 Cambodians had access to the Internet. By 2013, however, that number had surged to almost four million, or about a quarter of the country’s population. There are now 1.7 million registered Facebook users. Suddenly, ordinary Cambodians, including those living in rural areas, have the opportunity to receive news and information provided by the political opposition and other critical voices.
The political impact of the Internet was felt in the 2013 general elections, when the opposition attributed its victory in many areas to aggressive online campaigning. In addition, community activists and dissident monks were able to maximize the online space to highlight social issues that expose government abuse, such as landgrabbing, police brutality, corruption, and deforestation.
Perhaps feeling threatened by the social media phenomenon, the government proposed two laws in 2014 that would create several layers in the bureaucracy to directly supervise the growth and management of the Internet infrastructure. The draft laws have been assailed by some critics as serious threats to media freedom, but the government insisted that the passage of these measures is necessary to protect national security and the dignity of individuals.
The draft anti-cybercrime law intends to penalize Internet content that “generates insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.”
Meanwhile, the draft law on telecommunications would give the government a broader mandate as industry regulator. There are fears that authorities will use this law to install surveillance equipment that would monitor the Internet activities of Cambodian citizens.
Aside from introducing these draft laws, the government has already implemented some measures designed to discourage online dissent. In October 2014, the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers established the so-called “Cyber War Team” to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” Some officials also visited telecoms firms to inspect the data logs and billing records of some subscribers.
In a report published last week, the Cambodian human rights group Licadho warned against the “capricious controls” that the government is enforcing to weaken Internet freedom.
“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced. It comes as no surprise that as soon as Cambodians found a way to have their voices heard, the government has begun a comprehensive effort to once again silence them,” said Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho.
But the government is undeterred by criticisms. A few days ago, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan proposed “to take legal action against the ill-intentioned and unethical persons for using social media to attack, insult and defame civil servants and government leaders.”
“Insults and defamation are not part of freedom of expression, but instead violate the rights and dignity of individuals,” he added.
Cambodia has the right to pass laws that would enhance the rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Cybercrime legislation is necessary for the overall protection of the Internet sector and its subscribers. But human rights activists are right to argue about the inclusion of provisions in the draft laws that would erode the freedom that Cambodians enjoy while using the Internet. At a minimum, the government should genuinely consult civil society and other stakeholders before developing Internet-related laws.