This blog post is based on key highlights from the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School, held last April 2022 under the Greater Internet Freedom program. Read the rest of the posts here.
In its 70th year of independence, Cambodia continues its development in the digital world. But as the number of internet users increases, the government has continued to exercise control over existing online platforms via legislation and law enforcement agencies, as well as the use of social media such as Facebook to disseminate official information that is not always in accordance with reality.
The following are some key issues and concerns highlighted during the South and Southeast Asia Digital Rights School and Gender and Digital Rights Fellowship hosted by EngageMedia under the Greater Internet Freedom project.
Online Freedom of Expression
- Access to VOD archives blocked and explicit threats against government critics. Following the shutdown of Voice of Democracy (VOD), the Cambodian government instructed private internet service provider companies (ISPs) to block access to the site, essentially erasing access to the organisation’s archives concerning human rights and development issues. The Prime Minister has also threatened critics via Facebook, which the platform has continued to host despite violations of its website policies.
- Activists charged with royal defamation over Facebook post. Two Cambodian opposition figures were charged with royal defamation after questioning the King’s power over the Prime Minister via a post on their Facebook accounts. The charges were eventually dropped after they were made to post a public apology on their social media accounts. Hun Kosal, one of the individuals involved, now has his social media page littered with praise for the ruling Cambodian People Party. The sudden switch is a reflection of the trend of “compelled speech” that continues to rise within the country, with many choosing the path of self-censorship to remain safe.
Online Privacy: Facial recognition projects in motion. The Prime Minister awarded a USD 1 million tender to HSC Group for the government’s upcoming facial recognition projects, which many activists and human rights experts are opposing. Imposing surveillance policies using biometrics technology further empowers the government to trace a targeted individual’s personal data and movement. Attempts to stifle freedom of speech are also reflected in the leaked draft of a proposed cybersecurity law that provides the government with concerning cybersecurity powers.
Digital Inclusion and Connectivity: Low digital literacy rate calls for more inclusive features. Cambodia’s internet users have soared to about 80% of the total adult population, but digital literacy ability remains low at 30% of the total population. The government launched godigital.gov.kh in 2022 to promote digital accessibility among internet users and promote meaningful use of the internet, but the challenge mainly lies in the lack of inclusivity both in devices and resources, especially to cater to the disabled and elderly populations.
Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV): Facebook at the centre of OGBV spread. About 20% of female internet users in Cambodia have experienced online harassment including being threatened, sexually harassed, and stalked. Women belonging to the LGBT+ community, youth, and activists are facing harassment at even higher rates, with Facebook being the leading platform for harassment. The platform itself does not have the basic safety features available in the Khmer language, including a fast and effective reporting procedure for abusive content.
Online Disinformation and Hate Speech: Facebook’s algorithms play a part in disinformation spread. Facebook’s ineffective filtering processes and its reluctance to refute or take down fake news and accounts spreading disinformation played a part in the Cambodian disinformation ecosystem. Human rights activist and Buddhist Monk Luon Sovath was one of the victims of the systematic smear campaign disseminated via Facebook. The activist has had to leave the country to avoid further punishment.
Digital hygiene: Skills for online safety among the lowest in the region. The majority of Cambodian people remain vulnerable to threats, and access and resources for digital hygiene are not equal, in part due to the limited availability of content in local and indigenous languages. The government is currently rolling out digital literacy programs for students and teachers in selected schools, using Khmer as the program’s main language.