This article was written by an advocate working on digital rights issues that Cambodia is facing.
In January 2022, the government of Cambodia published its Digital Government Policy 2022-2035, with a vision to “establish a digital government to improve the citizens’ quality of life and build their trust through better public service provision”. The policy was meant to align with rapid internet penetration in the country and how social media continued to transform how Cambodians communicated and engaged with media and accessed information.
That same month, civil society groups first convened the Digital Rights Working Group (DRWG) to tackle digital rights and internet freedom in Cambodia. The group analyses and monitors the government’s control over the flow of information on online platforms, its imposition of aggressive cyber-policing, the blocking of websites and associated social media accounts, and increasing online surveillance.
Government social media platforms are also being used to silence critics and those who oppose government interests. The censorship of social media, particularly Facebook, remains the most pressing digital rights issue in the country. Authorities have also gone after the media, with independent journalism groups targeted before the 2018 elections. This crackdown has continued over the years, the most recent being the February 2023 closure of independent news organisation Voice of Democracy (VOD) ahead of the 2023 national elections in July. If this trend holds, a dangerous culture of self-censorship among Cambodia’s growing population of netizens could develop.
How are politics, legal mechanisms being used against human and digital rights?
The government’s control over online and social media platforms is closely tied to the national elections and rivalry between the country’s political parties. These platforms have been systematically used by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by the country’s longest-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, to ensure its victory.
Such was the case during the 2017 commune elections, which have been reported as neither free nor fair. Opposition party members and activists were notably threatened both physically and online, silenced, and jailed during this period. The Supreme Court would later that year dissolve the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a notable opposition party that garnered significant votes during the elections. With the CNRP out of the picture, the CPP swept the 2018 national elections and continues to be the ruling party today.
Amidst this stronghold on online platforms, the Cambodian government has also enacted new laws and regulations that pose serious concerns on human rights and fundamental freedoms:
- Law on Telecommunications (2018): Article 97 permits covert listening and recording of dialogue using any telecommunications system, but only requires approval from a ‘legitimate authority’. Without specifying what constitutes a ‘legitimate authority’, the law is open to arbitrary interpretation and has a high likelihood of being abused for politically-motivated reasons. As it stands, Article 97 does not comply with the best practices of restrictions under international human rights law and standards.
- Sub-decree on the National Internet Gateway (2021): The sub-decree enables the government to increase online surveillance and control of the internet, threatening rights to free expression, data protection, and data privacy. Several articles of the sub-decree, such as Articles 6, 12, 13 and 14, are not clearly defined and are restrictive of people’s rights. For instance, Article 6 allows the blocking of online connections or content deemed to “affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions, and customs”. While not yet implemented, the sub-decree infringes on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 41 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
- Draft laws on Cybercrime and Cyber Security (pending): The draft cybercrime and cybersecurity laws have drawn concern from human rights groups over broad and vaguely-defined clauses that could provide the government with legal cover to intensify its crackdown on freedom of expression. There are also concerns over the lack of safeguards on privacy and data protection.
Together, these laws threaten Cambodians’ rights to freedom of expression, privacy, digital rights, and internet freedom. These also go against the national and international law that the Cambodian government ratified.
How can Cambodian and Asia-Pacific advocates address these issues?
In August 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia published a list of benchmarks to help promote human rights implementation in the country, among them to “desist from applying and reform draconian laws” and “release detained human rights defenders and political dissidents and drop the charges against them”.
The DRWG also continues to not only advocate for the protection of digital rights in the country but also to seek support and solidarity with neighbouring Asia-Pacific countries. Its members include representatives from local and international nongovernment organisations, media outlets, and various experts on pressing digital rights issues.
But the challenge of addressing digital rights violations in Cambodia is beyond the capacity of the Cambodian civil society groups. The DRWG is calling on regional and international digital rights advocates to:
- Publish joint statements of regional solidarity in the Asia-Pacific against the controversial laws and regulations infringing on digital rights and internet freedom.
- Co-produce advocacy media campaigns that will raise greater awareness of the impact of laws and policies on digital rights, foster healthy democratic discourse within the general public, and gather support for concrete reform
- Conduct fact-finding missions, research, and legal analysis for policy papers
- Organise regional workshops, forums, and events to learn and understand the digital rights issues in Cambodia
- Mobilise more funding to support the implementation of digital rights and digital security programs
- Collectively monitor and report on the government’s enforcement of the laws and policies on digital rights
- Collectively advocate for amendments to Cambodian laws that are contrary to international human rights obligations
- Engage closely with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, including the Human Rights Council, to have in-depth dialogues on the situation of digital rights, including freedom of expression in the digital age, and to identify effective solutions to address the issues of shrinking digital spaces.