Cambodia's young internet users are thinking twice before discussing politics online, say prominent bloggers, after the third case of government punitive action sparked by Facebook comments within a month.
On Saturday, student Kong Raiya, 25, was charged over a Facebook post linked to him for comments published on August 7 calling for a “colour revolution”.
According to Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Seang Sok, Raiya faces charges relating to incitement to commit a crime and, if found guilty, could spend up to two years in prison.
His arrest on Thursday came less than a week after opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour was seized by police for a Facebook post presenting a “fake” Vietnam Cambodia border treaty.
That case – labelled “treasonous” by Prime Minister Hun Sen – followed the July suspension of opposition lawmaker Um Sam An from parliament over remarks made on Facebook “insulting” National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Speaking yesterday, Ou Ritthy, founder of political discussion group Politikoffee, said his members were troubled by Raiya’s arrest and, amid government pressure on activism, were self-censoring for fear of repercussions.
“Many Politikoffee members are worried about their online political comments, and we are hesitating and thinking twice with what we are going to say even though we are a moderate group and strongly against a revolution as the means to bring about change,” Ritthy said.
“Self-censorship has become the case before publishing any political opinions, because we are not sure about the government’s interpretation and perception towards our opinions.”
Phnom Penh-based blogger Tharum Bun said it appeared the government was sending a clear signal about online dissent.
“This arrest sends a clear message to Cambodian Facebook users to be really, really careful about what they’re saying online.”
In a recent study, the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media found that although 63 per cent of Cambodian internet users feel “very” or “somewhat” free to share their thoughts online, 88 per cent would not feel so if authorities began monitoring the net.
Although a draft cybercrime law was shelved in December amid heavy criticism of its leaked draft, CCIM executive director Pa Nguon Teang said the recent arrests showed the government can still use “broad interpretations” of existing laws, such as incitement or defamation, to stifle online expression.
With the youth vote expected to make a major impact at the 2018 election, Teang predicted such cases to rise, pointing to the government’s 2014 announcement of “cyber war” teams to monitor the web and plans to install surveillance equipment directly into Cambodia’s ISPs.
“Unfortunately, this trend of arrests and punishments for online free expression is likely to increase in the run-up to the next national elections as the ruling party looks to solidify its control over the national dialogue,” Teang said.
However, speaking yesterday, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sous Yara said the government did not curtail freedom of expression, but noted people needed to respect the rule of law.
He also said the ruling party was working to improve its own use of social media to reach the grassroots.
“We cannot just manage our information through the traditional media; we have to upgrade our knowledge to the modern social media.”