Coming on the heels of high-profile arrests linked directly to Facebook posts, the Interior Ministry has revealed plans to establish a new “anti-cybercrime” department that will not only “crack down” on crimes like hacking, but a broad range of misdeeds open to interpretation including incitement and insulting or racist language.
Working with other branches of government as well as private service providers, the new department will “gather and analyse” telecommunications data to discover online crime and national security threats, according to a sub-decree signed on August 19 and revealed yesterday.
“This department will cooperate with all the involved institutions in order to intercept online crime, because if the crime is not halted, it will put society in danger,” National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said, adding that a director and deputy director had yet to be selected for the “long planned” department.
However, after recent arrests linked to social media posts, human rights groups and the opposition yesterday doubted the government’s intentions, calling the department another weapon to stifle dissent among Cambodia’s booming online community.
“I’m afraid this is a systematic crackdown on opinion,” Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said.
“You can see the crackdown on NGOs; they arrest the CRNP activists and leaders, and now they set up a team to crack down on the internet, on Facebook.”
In December last year, the government seemingly pulled the plug on a “cybercrime” bill, first revealed in the Post, in the face of fierce criticism.
The Council of Ministers, however, has since established a “Cyber War Team” to monitor online activity and maintain the prestige of the Cambodian government.
Despite its name, government spokesman Phay Siphan said it was more like a media monitor, checking “open source" information to “evaluate the news”.
But Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said that, in contrast to the Cyber War Team, the new department’s staff of judicial police will be fully empowered to investigate and compel cooperation.
He added: “This team also has the right to crack down on the crimes.”
On August 15, Sam Rainsy Party Senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested by armed police after posting to Facebook a “fake” version of a 1979 border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Less than two weeks later, university student Kong Raiya was detained after allegedly calling for a “colour revolution” on the social media network.
Following the arrests, young bloggers said that they had increasingly felt forced to self-censor for fear of a government backlash.
Cambodian Centre for Independent Media executive director Pa Nguon Teang said that the cases showed the government didn’t need a cybercrime bill to intimidate Cambodia’s internet users.
Teang called the plan “highly troubling”, saying authorities were dedicating a significant amount of resources to policing the web.
“This becomes very concerning given the seeming overlap between these efforts by the Ministry of Information, the activities of the Cyber War Team announced last year, and the duties of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications,” Teang said.
“Without a clear legal framework establishing accountability lines and clearly outlining the warrants or court orders required to obtain users’ records, no one’s communications are secure.”
It was not immediately clear how the government might go about compelling internet service providers to provide information.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with Cambodian rights group Licadho, said it appeared the government was paving the way to finally introduce its cybercrime law.
“This clearly shows that the government intends to control and restrict those who wish to criticise the current government, as many Cambodians dare to criticise the government through social networks, especially Facebook,” Sam Ath said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHAUN TURTON