Did you ever think about the possibility of getting in trouble for accusing authorities of corruption or fraud on Facebook? Fact is that your comments are more or less visible by everyone who wants to see them. LIFT looks into whether you could be held legally responsible for your comments and likes on Facebook. We sat down and discussed law and legal practice with H.E. Kheiu Kanharith, minister of information; Moeun Chhan Nariddh, from the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies; and Sok Sam Oeun, president of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
1. Is saying something on Facebook like saying it in public?
Facebook allows a single individual to have up to 5,000 friends. Does this make Facebook a public place?
To this question, H.E. Khieu Kanharith, minister of information, said: “We can consider Facebook semi-public and semi-non-public, depending on the users per se because of the fact that if we don’t allow others to know us by adding or accepting friends, then they can’t know what we post and we can’t know about them, in return.”
Sok Sam Oeun, president of the Cambodian Defenders Project and legal expert, said that “so far there hasn’t yet been any legal discussion [in Cambodia] which regards Facebook as public”. He continued that because the country doesn’t yet have laws covering the web, we can’t really determine whether Facebook is a public place.
Oeun also emphasised that, “even if one particular Facebook user spreads false information or curses, there is no law to punish this as if it were done publicly”.
2. Should the government regulate Facebook with a cyber law?
Kanharith conceded that there is a lot of false information on Facebook and that the site is like other news websites on which anything can be discussed.
A cyber law is going to take lots of effort and time, the minister said. A long discussion and much debate is needed before any such law could be written. For the time being, the urge to protect one’s own personal reputations is all the regulation there is, the minister said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, Cambodia Institute for Media Studies director, said that freedom of expression is a part of a free press and a democracy in general, so there should not be any constraints on the expression of opinion.
“I think laws invariably lead to punishment, so for this [social networking websites] I do not want to see punishments [that would limit] freedom of expression.” He suggested that people should self-regulate and not use social media to attack someone with libelous messages or disinformation.
3. Can I end up in prison for insulting the PM on Facebook?
In this regard, Oeun said that “when talking about legal charges, things must be clear. At this point, there are no particular laws on the book to punish Facebook users [for libeling or insulting someone on Facebook]”. He added that expressing ideas on Facebook is just like chatting at a coffee table.
Nariddh, however, said that if there was a “serious case” of libel, a judge could look at the facts of the case with regard to existing laws like the criminal code and the press law. However, he said, finding facts that show how libel on Facebook had an effect in reality could be difficult to do.
Nariddh said that users should not take Facebook and other social media for granted and use them to maliciously attack other people.
He said that if an insult is unintentional, then apologising and removing the post are enough.
4. How are people punished for libel or disinformation on Facebook in practice?
Nariddh said that in Cambodia it is next to impossible to hold people legally responsible for things they post on Facebook as there are no specific laws against such behaviour.
The professor of journalism added, however, that someone who shares information or commented on posts becomes a so-called “citizen journalist”.
“It is hard to differentiate between a citizen journalist and a conventional journalist,” he said.
The minister of information and Oeun believe that people who act against social norms, such as by lying and making offensive posts, are subsequently disliked and isolated by others.
5. Regardless of legal consequences, how should I behave on Facebook?
Alluding to his earlier comments, Nariddh said “actually Facebook users can be regarded as citizen journalists, so they should respect the principles and ethics of journalism, meaning they mustn’t lie or provide false information”.
Oeun said that “everything, including Facebook, has pros and cons; users should avoid giving false information or cursing even though there isn’t any punishment for doing so. Except,” he pointed out, “for social punishment, such as being unfriended”.
Kanharith said that some Cambodian Facebook users are not sceptical enough of what they read.
He suggested that when seeing any information on Facebook, users be critical of what it says and find other sources to verify whether it is true. If Facebook is the only available source they should judge how accurate the news is based on their own knowledge.
In theory, Facebook can already be considered a public place. According to Nariddh, the means of sharing information on Facebook is mostly from one source to a mass of audience. A post by one person can be seen by hundreds or thousands of others.
This makes Facebook a means of mass communication. However, this fact is not enough to guide people and the justice system. As a result, a real law is needed.