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Draft Law Could Mean a Crackdown on Online Freedom, Expert Says

Ok Serei Sopheak, governance specialist.
Ok Serei Sopheak, governance specialist.

A draft telecommunications law is causing concern from rights groups, who say it threatens freedom of speech online, one of the few spaces open to political discussion.

The popularity of social media and the ubiquity of mobile phones and other platforms have exploded in Cambodia in recent years.

But language in the draft law concerned with “national security” could hint at a crackdown by the government if it is ever approved, Ok Serei Sopheak, a governance expert, told “Hello VOA” last week.

“If the government cites only national security concerns to prosecute anyone or check their account at will, it’s very dangerous and a big concern,” he said.

A leaked copy of the draft, written by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, shows that it has been completed since June 2014, though it has not yet been made public.

The law would authorize the establishment of a regulatory body to grant and revoke licenses to private operators, take legal action and monitor users and operators.

“With this unlimited authority, bestowed to the regulator, I think it’s not right,” Ok Serei Sopheak said.

Without independent courts, legal action could come against anyone, he said. The law could also be used to target civil society groups the government is not happy with, he said.

However, Chheang Von, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said strict laws are necessary to protect people’s safety and security.

“If they use the telephone to make a threat to commit an act of terrorism, how can we find the perpetrator?” he said. “This seems to be a small matter, but once it poses a threat, it’s dangerous to the whole nation.”

Critics say the law gives too much power to the ministry, which could use its authority to shut down dissent.

“There is a tendency to manage the telecommunications in a way that would block youth and the public from expressing opinions,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “Because there will be surveillance and tools to monitor their conversation.”

Ok Serei Sopheak said there is still time to have an inclusive law. The government should hold discussions with civic groups, consumer representatives and others to ensure the law will respect people’s privacy, he said.

“We still have time to get the telecommunications law right,” he said. “There should be more openness and no hiding.”