Cambodia announced plans this week to form a new government department responsible for monitoring and cracking down on a range of vaguely defined “online” crimes, drawing expressions of concern from human rights groups and the country’s political opposition.
Authorized by an Aug. 19 subdecree issued by the Ministry of Interior, the move will further restrict an already tightly controlled media environment in Cambodia and target government critics, a Cambodian press freedoms advocate told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Right now, the government can’t control online media or social media,” Cambodian Center for Independent Media Director Pa Nguon Teang said.
“People rely on these media as independent sources for news, so the government is trying to find ways to threaten freedom of expression,” he said.
Cambodia’s government has already cracked down on critical commentary online, sometimes charging online users with crimes they didn’t commit, Pa Nguon Teang said.
“The government has interpreted some online content as ‘incitement’ or as causing ‘national unrest,’” he said, adding that authorities will then arrest those posting online simply for expressing their views.
“And the courts, which are influenced by the government, will then send them to jail,” he said.
Senior Cambodian officials meanwhile defended the move, calling it necessary not only for the control of online crimes like hacking, but also for the suppression of “incitement” and of “racist” and “insulting” language, along with undefined threats to national security.
“We must have a department like those in other countries in order to protect social order, national security, and the private security of all citizens,” Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak told RFA.
The planned department “will cooperate with all the involved institutions in order to intercept online crime,” National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said, according to a Sept. 8 report by the Phnom Penh Post.
“Because if [that] crime is not halted, it will put society in danger,” he said.
Cambodian police on Aug. 15 arrested opposition Sam Rainsy Party senator Hong Sok Hour after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of treason for posting on Facebook a disputed diplomatic document relating to the country’s border with neighboring Vietnam.
"The government intends to control and restrict those who wish to criticize the current government,” Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the Cambodian rights group Licadho told the Post this week.
“[This is because] many Cambodians dare to criticize the government through social networks, especially Facebook,” he said.
"I'm afraid this is a systematic crackdown on opinion," Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) spokesman Yim Sovann said, also speaking to the Post.
"You can see the crackdown on NGOs; they arrest the CNRP activists and leaders, and now they set up a team to crack down on the Internet, on Facebook," he said.
Reported by So Chivey for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.