As internet access spreads rapidly among the population, the “newfound space for free expression” is increasingly under government attack, local rights group Licadho said yesterday.
In its report, titled Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms, Licadho says government efforts to monitor web content, backed by a “new legal arsenal”, are threatening what has become “an essential tool through which citizens can share information on the social and political issues that affect their lives”.
Among the causes for concern, the report says, are two controversial draft laws – the cybercrime law and the law on telecommunications – a reported plan to install surveillance equipment in the country’s ISPs and a newly created government “Cyber War Team”.
“In the past two years, the government has contrived an expanded arsenal of legal tools and embryonic surveillance schemes that seem almost tailor-made to target the expression of dissenting opinions on the internet,” it says.
Officials at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications could not be reached yesterday, while Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Licadho was manipulating the facts. Siphan added that both the cybercrime law and the “Cyber War Team” were still in the “development” stage. “We don’t have anything official yet,” he said.
Ouk Kimseng, a press adviser at the Ministry of Information, insisted yesterday that the government supports online freedoms. Regarding a pilot program launched last year, aimed at blocking “immoral content” online, Kimseng – who has said the program was inspired by China and Syria – claimed that it was merely an effort to “find out how people feel”.
For political blogger Ou Ritthy, the boom in web access has provided a platform for young people to communicate and express their opinions, and has played a crucial role in “making youngsters independent, educated, [and] informed”.
“Democracy has increased so much because of the internet,” he said. Ritthy added that while he currently feels free from censors, he fears that if the proposed legislation is passed he “might need to be cautious”.
Licadho yesterday urged the National Assembly to “reject any legislation that seeks to impose severe restriction on fundamental rights to freedom of expression”. If such legislation goes ahead, it says, “for the freedom to speak openly online, time is running out”.