Is this the beginning of the end for digital activism in Cambodia?

In August 2015, minutes before sitting down to take an exam at Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University, 25-year old student, Kong Raya, was arrested and subsequently detained at Prey Sar prison. Two weeks earlier, he had asked on his Facebook page whether anyone would “dare to make a color revolution” with him. Despite claiming the post was intended more as “entertainment” and less as a veritable call to arms, the authorities, in a clear violation of freedom of expression, deemed him guilty of “incitement to commit a felony”. He was subsequently handed an 18-month prison sentence in March this year in the face of widespread indignation across civil society.

States have a moral obligation to protect their citizens and whilst this may sometimes require prosecuting citizens for speech “that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, Kong Raya’s post could hardly be perceived in this way. Unfortunately, his arrest is one of many similar incidents in the past year in which individuals have been punished for expressing themselves online, demonstrating a recent intensification in the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”)’s internet censorship efforts. The RGC has justified such clear human rights violations as necessary in order to prevent a relapse into the anarchism of the Pol Pot era, as exemplified by the RGC’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee’s recent series of videos on “the excessive use of rights”, which portray people power as inherently violent and guaranteed to bring about the downfall of society.

Due to the internet’s late introduction in Cambodia – internet subscriptions were as low as 320,190 in 2010 but rose to 6,795,908 in 2015 – the internet has, to date, managed to remain a relatively free space for Cambodians to openly express their views. However, since the 2013 election, in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) significantly dented the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (“CPP”) hold on power by successfully embracing the internet as a means of circumventing state censorship of traditional media sources, the RGC has increasingly turned its attention to prosecuting those that publish disagreeable online content.

For years, government censorship of the internet in Cambodia was conducted in a manner that belied any discernible underlying strategy. Websites, such as those of London-based transparency group Global Witness and Cambodian diaspora blog KI-Media, were temporarily blocked for posting content critical of the RGC and numerous initiatives, such as the plan to establish a “Morality Committee” to block websites deemed to be in conflict with national values, were proposed but later either condemned to the rubbish heap or poorly enforced. However, as internet penetration grew, the RGC was compelled to rethink its approach to online censorship in order to protect its position of power. 

In May 2012, the RGC first announced its plan to introduce a Cybercrime Law, which, according to the spokesman for the RGC’s Press Department, was “to prevent any ill-willed people or bad mood people from spreading false information, groundless information that could tend to mislead the public and affect national security or our society”. The latest draft of the proposed law contains a number of worrying provisions and purposefully ambiguous language that has the possibility of lending itself to political manipulation. For example, Article (27), provides for the dissolution of legal entities, including NGOs, if individuals affiliated with the organization perpetrate ambiguously defined “cybercrimes”.

King Norodom Sihamoni promulgated a new Telecommunications Law on 7 December 2015, giving the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (“MPT”) the power to order telecommunications providers to hand over data, systems and equipment and even to transfer control of telecommunication systems to the Ministry if circumstances deemed to threaten national security were to arise. Moreover, Article 97 criminalizes eavesdropping conducted by private individuals but authorizes such forms of surveillance when conducted by the MPT.

In lieu of the recently adopted Telecommunications Law and pending Cybercrime Law, the RGC repeatedly threatened and arrested individuals for posting critical online content, often invoking arguments citing defamation as a criminal offence by way of justification. Hun Sen himself has warned internet users planning on using “bad words” to insult him that it would take the government less than seven hours to find them. Since August 2015, no less than seven people have been arrested and 24 publicly threatened with prosecution for posting online comments, marking a turning point in the government’s previously inconsistent approach to online censorship.

Senator Hong Sok Hour was among the seven arrested since last August. Testament to the RGC’s continued interference in judicial matters, the Senator’s arrest came days after Prime Minister Hun Sen had personally called for his arrest during a speech. In contempt of his parliamentary immunity, Hong Sok Hour was charged with forgery and incitement and detained at Prey Sar prison for posting on Facebook a doctored version of a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Border Treaty in August. As his defense team has consistently argued, there was no evidence that Hong Sok Hour was even aware of the erroneous details contained in his post and posting a fake treaty on Facebook does not in itself constitute a crime. Thus, Hun Sen has effectively “criminalized a statement of historical inaccuracy as a means of cracking down on the political opposition, demonstrating that he has the power to arrest and imprison anybody, anytime”.

Unfortunately, the judicial harassment of individuals that have aired political grievances online threatens to lead to a culture of self-censorship in Cambodia. This amounts to a violation of freedom of expression, which is essential in the fight to preserve all other inalienable human rights by allowing individuals to challenge injustices; to hold government accountable to those it represents and to share and exchange ideas and information freely.

Since the 2013 elections, the RGC has increasingly sought to crackdown on political dissent expressed via the internet. Alongside arming itself with a legal arsenal to arbitrarily prosecute those that politically oppose it, the RGC has continually threatened and arrested individuals that post online criticism of its actions, even when such comments fall well within the boundaries of legitimate expression. The Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the highly controversial 18-month sentencing of Kong Raya in July this year demonstrated that this unwavering opposition to freedom of expression when it threatens the reputation of the RGC is unlikely to change anytime soon. Given the recent spate of high profile defamation cases, exemplified by the ongoing trial of Kem Sokha, this is only likely to intensify as we approach the upcoming national elections in 2018.

The introduction of the internet to Cambodia once offered the Cambodian democratic project a glimmer of hope, offering Cambodians an opportunity to openly share ideas without fear of reprisal. As the RGC presses ahead with its introduction of repressive laws intent on outlawing freedom of expression in the Kingdom, these hopes are now being slowly extinguished. With the traditional media already under the control of the RGC and the staging of large-scale non-violent public protests near impossible, Cambodians risk losing their last remaining arena for open, political debate.

Euan Black, CCHR International Intern

 

 

 

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About Cambodian Center for Human Rights

CCHR is a leading non-aligned, independent, non-governmental organization that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights – primarily civil and political rights - in Cambodia. We empower civil society to claim its rights and drive change; and through detailed research and analysis we develop innovative policy, and advocate for its implementation.

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