The government continues to prepare a law on cyber-crimes and a law on telecommunications, but critics worry these will clamp down on one of the few places for true free speech in the country.
The Internet, social media and mobile devices have all allowed a space for expression that has been unprecedented in the country, where conversations about poverty, deforestation and land grabs had been free from government control.
In a new report, “Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedom,” the rights group Licadho says the new laws, if passed, would expand governmental authority into cyberspace and curb those freedoms, potentially by going after service providers.
“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced,” Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for Licadho, said in the report. “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.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the draft law on cyber-crime is “dormant,” and that the Licadho report does not reflect the government’s intent. The law is meant to crack down on “hackers,” he said.
However, Am Sam Ath said the report, which took two years to compile, is well-sourced and aimed to provide food for thought for government policy. So far the laws have been kept secret. They should be made public, he said, “so that the relevant groups can give comments.”
Meas Po, spokesman of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said the telecom law is to be sent to the Council of Ministers soon and to be debated by the National Assembly by the end of the year. “We made the law to guide and to monitor,” he said. “We did not make the law to create problems.”
The ministry is continuing to study how to best draft the cyber-crime law, he said. In response to criticism that the legislation could be used to control service providers, he said: “Some people do not know the law.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that he was not aware of the details of the draft, but in general, he said, “I think it is better to be under the law.”
Licadho’s director, Naly Pilorge, said the two laws are meant to provide the ruling Cambodian People’s Party control over social media and will dampen freedom of expression.
“The draft Cybercrime Law and Law on Telecommunications are a clear attempt by the CPP to establish complete control over Cambodia’s Internet,” she said in a statement. “The extreme discretion that the Cambodian government would wield under these laws could and likely will be used to suppress virtually any form of critical online content.”
Ou Virak, head of the think tank Future Forum, said the Internet and social media are important to many Cambodians’ freedom of expression, and provide information about the wider world. It has also allowed them a forum outside demonstrations, he said.
“The number of protests has decreased,” he said. “[People] express ideas through online social media, such as Facebook. There’s an improvement.” Millions of people are using Facebook, he said, thanks to low costs of data and technology.
A law may be required to prevent hacking and other online abuses of the law that could affect state security, he said, but the law should be focused.