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Information Expert Breaks Down Cambodia’s ‘Cybercrime’ Law

A photo of a Google Search Cambodia website. A leaked cybercrime draft law has increased concerns from human rights activists that the law could threaten online freedom in Cambodia. (Suy Heimkhemra/VOA Khmer)
A photo of a Google Search Cambodia website. A leaked cybercrime draft law has increased concerns from human rights activists that the law could threaten online freedom in Cambodia. (Suy Heimkhemra/VOA Khmer)

Editor’s note: Cambodia’s cybercrime law was leaked earlier this year. Cambodian officials have denied the existence of such a draft law, but local and international rights group have criticized the secret draft process, as well as some stipulations that might affect freedom of speech online. VOA Khmer recently spoke with Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, to discuss the implications of such a law.

Unlike in Thailand or Vietnam, there have not been many high-profile arrests of online activists in Cambodia. In fact, the country was ranked “partly free” in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net Index, way ahead of some of its neighbors. So why has your organization recently expressed concerns that the leaked draft cybercrime law would turn free speech into a crime?

Cambodia also has much lower Internet penetration [than its neighbors]. It is only in about 5 percent of the country’s population. So it seems like this is the moment for the government to start thinking about these things. Unfortunately, the cybercrime draft that they have put together concerns us, in terms of the effects that it might have on free speech.

What part of the draft concerns you the most?

Article 28 outlines online actions that are deemed punishable by law, which include some really vaguely worded activities, like publications that are deemed damaging to the moral and cultural values of society, and also publications and continuation of publications that are deemed to be non-factual, which slanders or undermines the integrity of governmental agencies, ministries, etc.

Those are both things are we have seen in other countries before. The former is often used to go far beyond things like hate speech and in fact penalize, say, blogs or newspapers that are critical of a government. Whereas the latter, criminalizing slander, is of concern, as well. This is something that we’ve seen government officials use to prosecute independent journalists.

I would imagine that governments would argue that there has to be some sort of regulation in place, given the nature of certain comments and whatnot. How would you respond?

We do have concerns about regulations around hate speech. In our experience, hate speech is something that is often very ill defined. So while Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does make some exceptions for hate speech, we are still concerned about the way it is regulated most of the time, which is to say, through vaguely worded proposals that can allow mission creep.

And so in this case, another thing that really worries us is that penalties for the actions that I mentioned before carry heavier punishments than actions that might be carried out offline. And so this makes it really clear that they are trying to prevent people, really, from dissent online. Something as vaguely worded as “the moral and cultural values of society,” without explicating what those values are, can certainly be used to prosecute opposition or dissent.

We understand that there are cases in which regulations need to be applied, but in this case, the process through which this was drafted, which was behind closed doors, without full civil society, the lack of transparency, the secrecy around this bill—is really what concerns us, as well as the content of the bill. And so if there must be regulations, we believe that something must be done in a multi-stakeholder process, which involves input not only from governments, but also from academics, from civil society organizations and other entities, companies even.

So if this draft law is passed without much modification, what are your concerns of the effects in the short-term and long-term?

I think right now we’re at a moment in Cambodia where not a lot of people have access to the Internet. And so one of the concerns about this is that by putting these restrictions in place, from the very outset, that can have a chilling effect on speech as the country gets more and more online. And so I think that our concern would just be that this is ultimately discouraging people from having open political conversation on the Internet.

If the draft law were approved, would it have impacts beyond rights, would it, for example, have impacts on the economy in a developing country like Cambodia?

It could prevent companies from wanting to start up offices. I know with Internet penetration so low in Cambodia, that’s not something on the immediate horizon. But at the same time we’ve seen companies turn away from moving into Thailand because of their restrictions on the Internet. So it certainly can have an economic effect.

Are you happy with the attention this draft has received so far?

Certainly. I haven’t seen many reactions from inside the country, but nevertheless I am happy to see that this is getting attention. For years we’ve tried to raise issues around countries that don’t often make it on to the radar of international organizations and of governments. And so I’m very happy to see that this has gotten considerable attention in the media.