Althought still ranked “Partly Free”, internet freedom in Cambodia is slipping, says a report by Freedom House, a US-based democracy, political freedom and human rights watchdog. But the deputy secretary of the Ministry of Justice said the report “did not reflect the truth”.
The report found that Cambodia was among 26 countries that had dropped on its scale, while 19 had seen internet freedom improve.
It said Cambodia had intensified a crackdown on online dissidents, with arrests made over political commentary on social media and news sites.
Cambodia scored 55 on the scale in which 0 is “Free” and 100 “Least Free”. Over the past five years, the Kingdom has been slipping – from a score of 47 points in 2013 and 2014, 48 points in 2015 and 52 points in 2016 and 2017.
Freedom House assesses internet freedom in 65 countries with grades of “Free” for a score from 0 to 30 points, “Partly Free” for 31-60 points and “Not Free” between 61-100 points.
Cambodia’s neighbours, Vietnam (with 76 points) and Thailand (65 points) remain “Not Free”.
The report based its conclusion on a wide range of aspects affecting media freedom, including the adoption of the lese majeste law, the release of code of conducts for the media by the National Election Committee, inter-ministerial prakas to form groups to monitor online news and the closure of Radio Free Asia Cambodia and the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
Chin Malin, a member of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) and Ministry of Justice spokesman, said he could not comment on the report’s finding without having seen the methodology used.
He said the Freedom House evaluation could have been based on one-sided sources, but the actual situation regarding online freedom in Cambodia is “not that bad”.
“It is not that bad – the report is not reflecting the truth. Even though our press freedom is not perfect, we are far better than other countries in the region and some countries around the globe.
“We don’t have to look at other sectors – just look at the number of media institutions, the number of journalists, the relationship between the government and journalists, and the way the government monitors media content,” Malin said.
He said the expression of opinion and media publications were not censored in Cambodia “but exercising freedom of the press must be within the legal framework. Legal action had been taken against some journalists because they went beyond the law, even criminal law,” he said.
Soeung Sen Karuna, an official with rights group Adhoc, said with just a glance at the general situation, online freedom in Cambodia appeared good. But regarding politics or people’s rights, it was a different matter.
“With regard to politics, online freedom is restricted. We see the lese majesty law and accusations of “incitement” have been used [by authorities]."
“And recently, three ministries jointly forced the monitoring of online content and shut down Facebook accounts that criticised the government."
“This shows that the government doesn’t want to see online expression,” he said.
He said another example of the restriction on online freedom came during the elections, in which, he said, more than 10 independent media websites were blocked.
“I think these were the grounds that Freedom House used to support its research and conclude that these were the pressures placed on freedom of expression."
“It did not look at the general use of social media by people who just post about their daily lives,” he said.