Cambodia's Draft Law Turns Free Speech into Cybercrime
Historically, Cambodia has been fairly lax in enacting legislation that stifles freedom of expression online—unlike its neighbors of Vietnam and Thailand— but with more Cambodian citizens gaining access to the Internet, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has attempted to control dissenting views and "immoral actions" online through the drafting of a cybercrime law. A leaked copy of the legislation, which was initially drafted in 2012, revealed some serious threats to fundamental freedoms by making certain speech and other actions online punishable by fine and prison time.
One of the main issues with this cybercrime draft law is the fact that it was drafted behind closed doors, without the input of civil society. This lack of transparency and secrecy leads to the government having free reign to stifle speech online and lock down any political dissenters. Furthermore, Article 28 of the draft outlines the online actions that are deemed punishable by law, including engaging in activities set forth in “publications that [are] deemed damaging to the moral and cultural values of the society,” and “publications or continuation of publication that [are] deemed to be non-factual which slanders or undermined the integrity of any governmental agencies, ministries, not limited to departments, federal or local levels.” Penalties for these actions are also outlined in the draft—revealing that speech violations that occur online would incur a more severe punishment than ones carried out offline.
Currently, the CPP controls most media outlets—including television, radio, and newspaper—in order to censor news and portray an unblemished façade of Cambodia. Events such as peaceful protests and displays of government opposition are perfectly hidden from the public on these media platforms, making the Internet the only source of uncensored information for citizens. Ou Ritthy, a well-known blogger in Cambodia, describes how the Internet has been an excellent platform for him and his friends to share intelligent political debates and discuss the state of their country’s government. However, Ritthy laments: "If this draft law is passed, my peers and I will be more cautious with our political expression despite the fact that we have never defamed or abused any ruling official… E-democracy has just [been] born in Cambodia, but this cyber law will be undermining its process."
The cybercrime law—which was drafted in secret—was obtained in 2014 by ARTICLE 19, a London-based human rights organization that defends freedom of expression and information, who offers its assessment of the cybercrime draft law here. ARTICLE 19 states that “Given the recent violent crackdowns on street demonstrations, the Internet is one of the few spaces left for Cambodian civil society members to share information and advocate for positive changes,” however they are “concerned that this space may soon become inaccessible as well.” While the legislation was first written in 2012, a cybercrime law has purportedly become more and more imperative for the Cambodian government to enact since the national elections of July 2013 when, according to Deutsche Welle, “the opposition made substantial gains against the ruling CPP party, which has held an iron lock on power for decades.” Dissenters of CPP leaders were able to form a community online and voice their criticisms of the CPP through social media platforms, which led to the CPP only winning the July election by a small margin. It is said that CPP leaders were caught off guard—not expecting the Internet to have such an impact on the elections. Political analyst, Ou Virak said: “The ruling party is certainly frustrated at the fact that they cannot win the battle online. They have no idea what to do. They tried different things. They tried throwing a lot of money, and that didn't work. So they're obviously frustrated. And this is why the Cybercrime Law is going to be one that the government is looking at as a potential tool.”
The vague wording of the draft law, if passed, would lead to a chilling effect among Cambodian Internet users, making the Internet yet another medium controlled by the government.