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Media Experts Warn Against a Cyber-Crime Law That Hurts Online Freedom

University students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh check the Internet at a coffee shop along the city's Russian Federation Boulevard, file photo.

A draft of the law from July obtained by VOA Khmer says its objective is combating digital crimes, intercepting data and preventing fraud and pornography.

As the Cambodian government moves forward with the creation of a law to regulate cyber-security, experts say any legislation should include clear language to prevent abuse of the law and restrictions to online freedoms.

A draft of the law from July obtained by VOA Khmer says its objective is combating digital crimes, intercepting data and preventing fraud and pornography.

But Moeun Chhean Naridh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the law should not be written in a way that will damage democratic rights.

“Today we have the Internet system, as well as social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, which make people, as voters, participate directly in the democratic process,” he said. “So if the press and the public in general cannot use the basic rights ensured by the constitution, it will negatively impact a government that has the will to have good governance.”

The best form of government is a democracy that has the direct participation of the public, he said. In Cambodia, the Internet is helping provide that, “as the voters participate directly in the democratic process, especially in elections every four years.”

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party lost seats in the 2013 election, amid a rise of a young population that is increasingly going online and voicing grievances via social media. Observers fear that a “cyber-crime” law will be used to crack down on this basic political expression. The government recently established a department to counter cyber-crimes at the Ministry of Interior, and last week, the Council of Ministers approved a telecommunications law to better regulate that sector.

Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer that more Cambodians are now relying on social media and the Internet, so a cyber-crime law is likely to be restrictive.

“In Cambodia we’ve seen that some of the laws are made to restrict people’s freedom, more so than protecting and giving them rights and freedoms,” he said. Few TV or radio stations are trustworthy, he said, and in the past, people who have used mass media to protest have been criminalized.

Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said the law’s existence is not a concern, but the way it will be implemented should be. The worry should be in “biased implementation, which is linked to the courts, the Ministry of Justice, and other issues,” he said. The new law should be focused on advanced technology, not freedom of expression, he added.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the ministries of Interior and of Posts and Telecommunications are working together on a new draft, claiming that the old draft has been thrown out.

However, an official at the Ministry of Interior, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the draft is moving forward, with some chapters still requiring discussion.