Cambodia’s opposition party, a nongovernmental organization and several netizens have slammed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government over its threat of legal action against people who criticize officials on social media networks, saying the move restricts freedom of speech.
Last week, government spokesman Phay Siphan sent letters to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication calling on them to pursue court action against internet users who are deemed to “insult” or “defame” civil servants and high-ranking government officials.
Phay Siphan has said the measure would be aimed at “immoral” users of social media and those who spread rumors to attack officials, but critics told RFA’s Khmer Service the move is meant to intimidate internet users and has no place in a democratic society.
Ny Chariya, director of the human rights investigation unit for local rights group ADHOC, said the threat of legal action was “politically motivated” and meant to eliminate online criticism of the government.
“When freedom of speech is restricted in a country, that country is no longer democratic, and I believe that constructive comments and criticism should be considered highly valued by officials for the improvement of society,” he said.
Yem Punharith, a spokesperson for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) told RFA that an increasing number of Cambodians are using the internet to share news and information and called on the government to broaden online freedoms.
“The government should expand the use of social networks for the younger generation,” he said.
“We should broaden this space, rather than restrict it, for the overall benefit of the country.”
Netizens also hit out against the government threat of legal action against social media users.
Facebook user Heng Pisith told RFA that because government officials are public figures, the public has the right to offer them constructive criticism.
“Public figures should accept criticism from the public in order to further develop themselves,” he said.
Netizen Chea Sideth said social media users are better at disseminating news information online than the local news media in Cambodia and urged the government to accept criticism posted on the internet.
“I call on all officials—especially Phay Siphan—to embrace social media because it is beneficial for the government,” he said.
“Government officials can use this information to get a better sense of the impact of their work in the country’s development process.”
Another social media user Ma Chitra said Cambodian officials feel that they are too important to take criticism from the public and urged the government to reconsider the measure.
“Sending letters of complaint [about online criticism] is discriminatory and politically motivated,” he said.
Phay Siphan responded to criticism of his appeal to the two ministries by saying the government has no intention of targeting any specific group, and that the move was meant to protect the reputation and dignity of individuals who have been unfairly targeted on Facebook and other social media networks.
The threat of legal action against users of social media comes amid broader concerns over the government’s drafting of a Law on Cybercrime and Telecommunication, which is believed to be nearing completion.
The law is expected to tighten internet censorship and further restrict free speech online in the Southeast Asian nation, according to international rights groups.
In October last year, a coalition of NGOs said in a statement that the proposed cybercrime law would prevent “ill-willed groups or individuals” from spreading false information and could criminalize individual input as well, while the telecommunications bill would make carriers responsible for censoring content.
“Freedom of expression is essential for democracy, but these telecom and cyber bills could be used to jail and bankrupt citizens whose comments on social media are critical of the government,” Consuelo Katrina A. Lopa, who represented coalition members Asia Democracy Network and South East Asian Community for Advocacy (Seaca), said at the time.
In December, U.S.-based Freedom House said in its 2014 Freedom on the Net report that draft provisions of Cambodia’s anti-cybercrime law penalized “poorly-defined” categories of online expression, adding that even without such a law, internet freedom had begun to erode in the country.
Blogs hosted overseas have been blocked for perceived anti-government content, Facebook users have been threatened with defamation charges for posts alleging corruption, and other cases of intimidation helped encourage self-censorship online in the past year, it said.
Reported by Um Rainsey for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sothearin Yeang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.