Censorship / Cambodian government issues chill on online speech and publishing

By: Tom O'Connell - Posted on: June 6, 2018 | Cambodia

New regulations from Cambodia’s government promise a legal response to social media and web publishing activities that “cause chaos” or “threaten national security”

A person reads the Phnom Penh Post at an office in Phnom Penh Photo: Kith Serey / EPA-EFE

The Cambodian government announced it will now monitor social media and online publishing platforms operating on its internet networks in an attempt to stop the spread of falsehoods “that can cause social chaos and threaten national security”.

It’s the latest move in the continued crackdown on the press and political opposition by the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years.

In its article about the Cambodian government’s new decree, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper used the term “fake news” 12 times. The Post was recently sold to the majority owner of a “covert PR” firm that has worked for the Hun Sen administration. The sale led to the resignations of all of the foreign editorial staff of the paper after a representative of the new owner, Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, demanded deletion of a story in the Post that offered insight into the Malaysian businessman’s past.

Three government ministries – the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and Ministry of Interior – will all be tasked with monitoring social media posts and websites that operate in the Kingdom, and acting against individuals and entities found to have breached the regulations.

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunication will take action against unlicensed internet service providers and require registered ISPs to block or filter “illegal” social media accounts and sites that are found to be operating “illegally”, according to the ten-point decree.

A government official who spoke with the Post said the purpose of the decree was not a “crackdown on internet freedom” and had nothing to do with the national elections slated for 29 July.

So how can internet users in Cambodia protect themselves? They simply need to verify that the information they post is accurate, a Ministry of Information spokesman, Ouk Kimseng, told the Post.

“The [decree] serves to warn internet users to verify the information they post online to ensure it is verified and true,” the Post quoted Kimseng as saying. “This will benefit the public and help stop the sharing of ‘provocative information’ that can cause social chaos.”

Kimseng added: “People can do whatever they desire… They can share whatever information they want, but just make sure it is not fake or against the law.”

Such a decree has long been under consideration by the government over concerns about how falsehoods posted online can impact individuals and the public, said Kimseng: “We consider the use of insulting words against leaders or any individual as affecting their reputation and public image. Such matters cannot be considered as an expression of opinion.”

While human rights group Adhoc and the ousted Cambodia National Rescue Party have voiced fears over this decree, a Cambodian journalists association said the decree will protect both free speech and Cambodian society.

“We view the government’s action as preserving internet freedom and not restricting it,” the Post quoted Huy Vannak, president of the Union of Journalists Federation of Cambodia, as saying. “It may be inconvenient to some, but it causes the users of social platforms to be more considerate and careful when disseminating information.”

“The move is a step in the right direction to strengthen freedom of expression. There have been cases when the king and leaders have been insulted, and this caused unrest. So preventing a repeat of such matters makes for a better society.”