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Freedom of expression online in Cambodia ‘stifled by laws’

A woman uses Facebook on her smartphone in Phnom Penh. A new report highlights how Cambodia and other Asian nations criminalise online expression.
A woman uses Facebook on her smartphone in Phnom Penh. A new report highlights how Cambodia and other Asian nations criminalise online expression. Pha Lina

Freedom of expression online in Cambodia ‘stifled by laws’

Cambodian laws are muzzling online expression, a new regional report launched on Tuesday has found.

The report, Unshackling Expression, studies online freedom in Asia and finds that Cambodia’s existing laws – especially surrounding defamation and sedition – are often so vague as to allow room for abuse.

“In Asia in particular, censorship and criminalisation of speech online are among the most critical challenges,” said Valeria Betancourt, communications manager at the Association for Progressive Communications – one of the groups behind the research.

The report also highlighted the “alarming trend” of harsher punishments and penalties being dished out for activities online than for those offline.

In Cambodia, the frequency of these punishments appears to have picked up. In one case earlier this year a man was arrested on his wedding day for calling the government “authoritarian” on Facebook, and in another a refugee was extradited from Thailand for throwing a shoe at a ruling party billboard in a video posted online.

“What we are essentially witnessing is the legal euthanisation of dissent and political expression,” said Sevan Doraisamy from Malaysian human rights organisation Suaram.

The report especially zeroes in on the Telecommunications Law and discusses an upcoming cybercrime law. The unchecked surveillance powers granted in the law “represent a troubling trend towards suppressing the freedoms of individuals in exchange for an increase in state control” that would only be exacerbated by the cybercrime law, the report said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that law is still under consideration by the Interior Ministry. He defended Cambodia’s legal apparatus as designed to ensure security. “When there is no law to restrict them, it will become anarchy and will impact safety, security and public order,” he said.

The absence of an overt law curbing online expression “has not stopped Cambodia from going after critical online speech”, said Ed Legaspi, executive director at the Southeast Asia Press Alliance.

“We don’t have any data about cases since the onset of the election season, but the general climate in the country has not been conducive to freedom of expression online following the closure of the radio broadcasts and Cambodia Daily, the outlawing of the [opposition] CNRP and the departure of activists and opposition politicians,” he said in an email. “This has created a general atmosphere of fear and self censorship.”

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