Some 116 organisations and associations have urged Cambodian officials to dismantle the new inter-ministry working group that was recently set up to monitor social networking sites, claiming it is an “abuse on the rights and freedom of expression via the internet”.
In a statement issued on Friday last week, they said the new government group, jointly operated by the ministries of interior, information and telecommunications, infringes on peoples’ freedom and also violates international human rights laws.
The statement was endorsed by organisations such as the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Action Pour Les Enfants and CamASEAN Youth’s Future.
They said the announcement of the group was ambiguous, leaving authorities room to self-determine what they see as a “violation” or which “causes the destruction of social orders”.
“The order can be used to stifle all forms of public discussion in Cambodia. Virtually any opinion which the authorities consider unacceptable could fall under its vague, sweeping criteria such as ‘breaking solidarity’ or ‘undermining social order’,” the statement said.
It said the blocking of content and closure of social media accounts seemed to be at the discretion of the ministries, with no judicial oversight or right to appeal. This, they said, gave the authorities the power to silence individuals at the “click of a button”.
The reaction from civil society has come after the three ministries issued a joint statement last week that said, with immediate effect, the working group will aim “to prevent the spread of information that can cause social chaos and threaten national security”.
According to the inter-ministry announcement, the group’s purpose is “to oppose and prevent the broadcast or distribution of information or writing, voice, picture, video and/or other forms which intend to cause chaos for national defence, national security, economic progress, public order, culture and traditions”.
In their statement, the civil society organisations also accused the government of undertaking actions against the Kingdom’s Constitution.
“This ministerial order represents a serious threat to the Cambodian people’s constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Article 41 of the Constitution of Cambodia states that ‘Khmer citizens shall have the freedom to express their personal opinions, the freedom of press, of publication and of assembly’.” They urged the authorities to annul the announcement.
Several civil society officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Ouk Kimseng, the Information Ministry’s spokesman, responded to the civil society organisations’ statement by saying the working group will only target offenders and not deprive internet users of their rights and freedoms.
“We will ensure all the freedoms of people on social media. What we will do is take aim at offenders creating fake news, using insulting words discrediting the King, and violating Cambodia’s laws,” he said.
Kimseng said civil society can prove useful by helping people understand what is illegal. “These civil society organisations have a duty to teach people the correct expression of an idea and not to use insults when it is wrong and illegal.”