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National Internet Gateway ‘not anti-freedom’

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An Sokkhoeurn, Cambodia’s permanent representative to the UN Offices in Geneva. Cambodia’s UN Office in Geneva

National Internet Gateway ‘not anti-freedom’

Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Offices in Geneva affirmed that the creation of the National Internet Gateway (NIG) adheres to the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. It said the NIG has nothing to do with ‘repression’ or ‘undermining privacy rights’ as claimed by three UN special rapporteurs.

The Mission representative, An Sokkhoeurn, refuted the claims in a statement on February 2, saying that the NIG will actually contribute to the realisation of Cambodia’s vibrant digitalisation, a driving force behind growth and development.

On February 1, three UN special rapporteurs – Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders – issued a joint statement calling on the Kingdom’s authorities to halt the sub-decree that will establish NIG.

They said the sub-decree – due to come into effect on February 16 – will have a serious negative impact on internet freedom, human rights defenders and civil society in the country. This will further shrink the “already-restrictive civic space in Cambodia”.

“This repressive decree could have a devastating effect on privacy and presents an inherent risk such information could be misused,” they said.

The rapporteurs requested that Cambodian authorities suspend implementation and work with international human rights mechanisms and the UN Country Team to bring it in line with human rights protections.

“To legally justify such a sweeping infringement on personal freedoms requires compliance with strict tests of legality, necessity and proportionality, including for matters of national security or public morality.

“It is exceedingly hard to imagine how any such legal justification may apply in this case,” they said.

However, Sokkhoeurn emphatically dismissed the claims, saying they are radically one-sided, politicised, imaginary and misleading.

He explained that NIGs are not unprecedented around the world. This is a vital tool which was passed for a legitimate goal, which is to facilitate and manage internet connections, to strengthen national security and tax collection, and to help maintain social order and protect the national culture.

The NIG is in line with Article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in which certain restrictions provided by law may apply if they are necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others, and for the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.”

The draft NIG sub-decree underwent broad consultation from telecom experts, operators and the institutions concerned, he added.

The NIG is a means to advance fair and honest competition and transparency, and to thwart illegal cross-border network connections, online gambling, pornography, child abuse and fraud, and other cyber threats, he said.

Sokkhoeurn went on to say that the Cambodian government remains steadfast in protecting privacy and freedom of expression. No part of the NIG sub-decree authorises the collection of consumers’ data or individual surveillance, as any handling of connections or technical operations is secure and encrypted.

“In lieu of hurling unfounded allegations and interfering in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state, the Special Rapporteurs are strongly urged to redirect their attentions to a worrying trend of human rights challenges, namely hate speech, slander, disinformation, incitement, including vaccine discrimination, and provocation to sedition under the guise of freedom of expression,” he said, adding that these experts had remained silent about these concerns.

Cambodian Institute for Democracy president Pa Chanroeun said that it was normal that people in related fields raise their concerns. He also noted that some provisions in the sub-decree may affect people’s basic rights on the Internet.

“After seeing the concerns and recommendations, I think the government should think twice and halt the implementation of this legislation. There should be more discussion regarding some articles,” he said.

Minister of Post and Telecommunications Chea Vandeth told The Post this week that the NIG was not a tool for capturing data from internet users or restricting freedom of the internet. It was merely to facilitate and manage internet connections and strengthen national security and tax collection. It would also help to protect public order and preserve the Kingdom’s rich culture, he added.

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