Freedom for Cambodia’s internet users has declined for the second year in a row, due largely to “a dramatic increase in detentions for online activity”, according to a report released on Monday.
The Kingdom retained its designation of “partly free” in the 2016 Freedom on the Net report, while its score climbed to 52, up from last year’s 48 (where zero is the best possible score). This leaves Cambodia ranked 40th among the 65 countries surveyed, but behind only Uganda and Bangladesh for the worst year-on-year change.
The report attributes much of the backslide to a slew of court cases against internet users, including student Kong Raiya and opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour.
Raiya, who was charged with incitement after calling for a “colour revolution” in a Facebook post last year, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March, while Sok Hour faced charges of forgery and incitement for posting an allegedly doctored version of a Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty on Facebook. Though the report only covers the period of time between June 2015 and May 2016, Sok Hour received a seven-year prison sentence earlier this month.
Ministry of Information spokesman Ouk Kimseng said that Cambodians enjoy unfettered access to the internet and social media, and that law-abiding citizens had no reason to be concerned about expressing themselves online. “Everyone enjoys access to the internet,” he said. “Everyone is welcome to use social media.”
Regarding the case of Kong Raiya, he added that using social media “just for fun” or “to talk about politics” was not problematic, “but inciting is another issue”.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, meanwhile, argued that a lack of publicity limited any chilling effect the arrests may have had on online speech.
“Most people didn’t even know Cambodian [Facebook] users have been arrested,” he said via email. “People continue to post their opinions . . . regardless of the arrests.”
The report also cautions that Cambodia’s Telecommunications Law, which was passed last December, is an opportunity for “increasing government intrusion into digital privacy”.
In April, rights group Licadho published a briefing arguing that the law, which contains a broad authorisation of “secret surveillance”, posed “serious threats” to unfettered online communication.
At the time of the Licado report’s release, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications rejected its concerns. Ministry representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Cambodia did defy what the report identifies as the central global trend of the past year: a crackdown on mobile communication apps. While many countries took measures to block the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, the Kingdom’s internet users have been subjected to no such restrictions.
The country has also seen large gains in internet penetration in the past year. Landline internet access rose to 19 percent from a reported 9 percent last year, and 29 percent of smartphone owners reported using their phones to access the internet, up from 19 percent in 2016. However, the report notes that “poor infrastructure” still prevents many Cambodians from accessing the internet.
Nariddh said that to ensure democracy, the government “needs to promote internet freedoms by being tolerant of any harsh criticism and scrutiny by the media and the public as a whole”.
But he added that Cambodian internet users have a reciprocal obligation. “They need to build their media literacy and learn how to use the internet safely and responsibly.”