Since coming to power, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has controlled and censored traditional media outlets. Government controlled broadcast licenses have systematically been denied to independent broadcasters while journalists have been threatened, prosecuted, jailed, and in some cases murdered for crossing invisible lines of what can and cannot be publicly discussed.
LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, releases its report Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms, describing the vital importance of the Internet for freedom of expression in Cambodia and the imminent threat that this last bastion for independent voices now faces.
Over the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a boom in web connectivity—a development which has transformed the country’s information environment. In 2010 just 320,000 Cambodians had access to the internet; by the end of 2013 that number had climbed more than tenfold to 3.8 million—nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Driven by the increasing availability of cheap web-enabled smartphones and extensive mobile networks, young Cambodians—mostly in urban areas— have embraced social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. There are now approximately 1.76 million Cambodians on Facebook, with an estimated 1,100 new users joining every day.
As a result, web-based social media networks have been taken up enthusiastically by bloggers, monks, community activists, and opposition politicians to circumvent government media controls and disseminate information about important issues such as land-grabs, police violence, impunity, corruption and deforestation, to name but a few.
According to LICADHO, this new found space for free expression is under attack. The government has created the Cyber War Team (CWT) to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” The government has visited the headquarters of Cambodian telecoms firms and ISPs to examine their network equipment and will reportedly begin installing surveillance equipment. Such reports are especially troubling given recent vaguely worded telecommunications deals between Cambodia and China, a country that appears ambivalent at best with respect to internet freedom.
“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced,” said Am Sam Ath, Technical Coordinator for LICADHO. “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.”
Because of its late and sudden emergence, the Internet is one of the few spaces left for free expression in Cambodia. Since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained a tight grip on the traditional print and broadcast media. Journalists have been killed, threatened, and sued for crossing invisible lines. Independent and opposition-aligned media outlets have been co-opted and forced into closure.
Government broadcast licenses have been denied to independent broadcasters and the political opposition, except for one recent notable exception which arose out of secretive political negotiations that have also resulted in the passage of two highly controversial election laws. A window of free expression was opened with the arrival of the United Nations (UN) mission of the early 1990s, but was slowly forced closed during the two decades that followed.
While internet penetration in Cambodia remains low by regional standards, the spread of smartphones and digital technologies has given many Cambodians better access to information than ever before. The web, relatively free from government control, has become an essential tool for through which citizens can share information on the social and political issues that affect their lives.
LICADHO says that in the past two years, the government has contrived an expanded arsenal of legal tools and embryonic surveillance schemes that seem almost tailor-made to target the expression of dissenting opinions on the internet.
In addition, there are two draft laws that, if passed, would allow the Cambodian government to control the content of what Cambodians post online in addition to the very architecture of the Internet itself.
The draft Cybercrime Law would create a new National Anti-Cybercrime Committee (NACC), chaired by the Prime Minister, with expansive powers to search and seize communication equipment. The law would also authorize the government with broad discretion to arrest online users for creating or sharing content that is deemed to violate numerous vaguely worded provisions.
If enacted, the law would extend the government’s authority over not only content posted on the internet but also over the internet services providers. The law will authorize the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications with the power to order any telecoms operator to transfer control of its system to the ministry in order to “maintain national interest, security, stability, or public order.” Further provisions would outlaw the installation of telecoms equipment that might “affect public order or national safety and security.” The vague clauses could potentially encompass any telephone call or email that is viewed as hostile by the government.
“The draft Cybercrime Law and Law on Telecommunications are a clear attempt by the CPP to establish complete control over Cambodia’s Internet,” said LICADHO Director, Naly Pilorge. “The extreme discretion that Cambodian government would wield under these laws could and likely will be used to suppress virtually any form of critical online content.”
If passed, the draft Cybercrime Law and draft Law on Telecommunications would give the government the power to control not just what appears on citizen’s computers and smartphones, but also the very structures which deliver the information in the first place. As with the traditional media, there would be no need to prosecute every instance of critical speech, just enough to plant the seed of doubt and fear in the minds of Facebook users, bloggers, and community activists. In this climate, freedom of expression on the internet would be held subject to a range of capricious controls. In short, it would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Internet access is spreading to more and more of the Cambodian population. But for the freedom to speak openly online, time is running out.
LICADHO urges the National Assembly to reject any legislation that seeks to impose severe restriction on fundamental rights to freedom of expression.
LICADHO also calls upon international donors and the international community at large to recognize and acknowledge that a vital space for freedom of expression in Cambodia is under serious threat, and this space needs to be promoted and protected in better ways.