Cambodian cybercrime law seen as threat to dissent
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Cambodian cybercrime law seen as threat to dissent

Activists say broad scope could give authorities more tools to silence critics

Relatives of arrested opposition politicians protest to demand their release, in front of the appeals court in Phnom Penh in September 2020. (Photo: Reuters)
Relatives of arrested opposition politicians protest to demand their release, in front of the appeals court in Phnom Penh in September 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with a cybercrime law that experts say could be wielded to further curtail freedom of speech amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

The cybercrime draft is the third contentious internet law that authorities have pursued in the past year as the government, led by new Prime Minister Hun Manet, seeks greater oversight of internet activities, the US government-funded news service Voice of America (VoA) reported.

The latest draft of the cybercrime law contains 55 articles, according to both English and Khmer language versions obtained by VoA. It lays out various offences punishable by fines and jail time, including defamation, using “insulting, derogatory or rude language”, and sharing “false information” that could harm Cambodia’s public order and “traditional culture”.

The law would also allow authorities to collect and record internet traffic data, in real time, of people under investigation for crimes, and would criminalise online material that “depicts any act or activity … intended to stimulate sexual desire” as pornography.

Digital rights and legal experts who reviewed the law told VoA that its vague language, wide-ranging categories of prosecutable speech and lack of protections for citizens fall short of international standards.

Instead, they said, it would providing the government more tools to jail dissenters, opposition members, women and LGBTQ+ people.

The law appears to draw on some of the elements of the Computer Crime Act in Thailand, which activists say has been used disproportionately against critics of the government. Those charged with royal defamation, for example, are almost always charged with computer crimes as well, since most comments deemed offensive to the monarchy appear online at some point.

Cambodian authorities hope to enact their new law, which was first mooted in 2016, by the end of this year, VoA said.

“This cybercrime bill offers the government even more power to go after people expressing dissent,” Kian Vesteinsson, a senior research analyst for technology at the human rights organisation Freedom House, told VoA.

Cambodian law already considers defamation a criminal offence, but the cybercrime draft would make it punishable by jail time up to six months, plus a fine of up to $5,000.

The “false information” clause — defined as sharing information that “intentionally harms national defence, national security, relations with other countries, economy, public order, or causes discrimination, or affects traditional culture” — carries a sentence of three to five years and a fine of up to $25,000.

Chea Pov, the deputy head of the National Police and former director of the Anti-Cybercrime Department at the Ministry of Interior, told VoA the law “doesn’t restrict your rights” and claimed the US companies which reviewed it “didn’t raise concerns”.

Google, Meta and Amazon, which the government has said were involved in drafting the law, did not respond to requests for comment.

Cambodian authorities said they hosted civil society organisations in March to discuss the draft. They plan to complete the drafting process and send the law to Parliament for passage before the end of the year, according to Pov.

Authorities have also sought to create a national internet gateway — another idea also floated in Thailand but later abandoned — that would require traffic to run through centralised government servers. The status of that project has been unclear since early 2022 when the government said it faced delays.

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