Cambodia’s Internet could soon be like China’s: state-controlled

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – On the day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four plainclothes men showed up at his camera shop near Angkor Wat and took him to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had posted two songs on YouTube and the men said they needed to know why he wrote them.

“They kept asking me, ‘Who is behind you? Which party do you vote for?’” said Mr. Kea Sokun. “I told them, ‘I’ve never voted and nobody controls me.'”

The 23-year-old artist, who says his songs are about everyday struggles in Cambodia, was sentenced to 18 months in a crowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics. His case is part of a crackdown that has seen dozens jailed for posting jokes, poems, pictures, private messages and songs on the internet.

The increased scrutiny reflects an increasingly restrictive digital environment in Cambodia, where a new law will allow authorities to monitor all internet traffic in the country. Critics say the decree puts Cambodia on a growing list of countries that have embraced China’s authoritarian model of internet surveillance, from Vietnam to Turkey, and will deepen disputes over the future of the internet.

Cambodia National Internet Gateway, which is scheduled to go live on February 16, will send all internet traffic – including from abroad – through a government-run portal. The gateway, mandatory for all service providers, gives state regulators the ability to “prevent and sever all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morals, culture, traditions and customs.”

Government surveillance is already high in Cambodia. Each ministry has a team that monitors the internet. Offensive content is reported to a cybercrime unit at the Interior Ministry, the center of the country’s robust security apparatus. Those responsible can be charged with incitement to hatred and jailed.

But rights groups say the new law will make it even easier for authorities to monitor and punish online content, and that recent arrests further intimidate citizens into self-censorship in a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution should.

“Authorities are encouraged by China as an example of an authoritarian state that provides Cambodia with political cover, new technologies and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, dean at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, whose family pre-Khmer Rouge fled the murderous regime that took power in Cambodia in 1975.

“The National Internet Gateway merely centralizes what used to be a decentralized system of controlling the Cambodian Internet,” he said. “The result will be that the last remnants of freedom of expression on the Internet will be destroyed.”

Cambodian authorities have defended the decree as essential to peace and security, dismissing accusations of censorship or any notion that freedom of expression is under threat. “There is a free press in Cambodia and freedom on the internet,” said Phay Siphan, the top government spokesman. “We encourage people to use the internet until it becomes incitement.”

Mr Phay Siphan accused human rights groups of “spreading paranoia” and described UN experts who have criticized the law as “part-time jobs”. He said he felt sorry for the young people who had been arrested for not speaking up for themselves.

“With freedom comes responsibility,” he said. “We warn you. We lecture them, have them sign documents, and the next week they post the same things without taking responsibility for maintaining peace and stability.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 and has avidly publicly condemned his political rivals, seems eager to carry his shame into the digital age.

When a former monk and activist posted a derogatory poem about the loss of the country’s forests to the prime minister’s Facebook page, Mr Hun Sen called the act “extremist” and ordered police to hunt the monk down. He was arrested in October.

August was a former agriculture professor sentenced to 18 months in jail for joking on Facebook about chickens having to wear anti-Covid masks. He was charged with incitement to hatred and defamation of the prime minister and the agriculture minister.

Weeks later, a farmer frustrated by the government’s failed promise subsidize longan crops while the pandemic kept borders closed to exports, he posted a video of tons of his annual crop rotting. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Of more than 30 arrests for digital content since 2020, the most publicized was of an autistic 16-year-old, who was published Nov. The teenager, Kak Sovann Chhay, had been jailed for comments he made in a chat group on Telegram, the private messaging app.

His father, a senior member of the banned opposition Cambodian National Salvation Party, was in prison at the same time. He had been jailed in 2020 for criticizing Mr Hun Sen on Facebook, where the prime minister has more than 13 million followers.

ISPs have asked authorities to provide more clarity about the gateway. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement that it “along with other stakeholders shared our feedback on this new law with the Cambodian government and expressed our strong support for a free and open internet.”

Last week, three local journalists were charged and jailed for incitement over a report they posted on Facebook about a land dispute.

“We are 35 days away from D-Day and no status update has been provided by the relevant authorities or the private sector itself. However, we did not expect public transparency on implementation,” Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, said this month.

“In the past, the government has tried to block content by asking private ISPs to remove it, with mixed success,” she said. “But the National Internet Gateway gives them a much more powerful tool to crack down on free speech and dissent.”

In a bizarre move in September, the prime minister “Zoom-bombed” an online meeting for members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. He took to Facebook to explain the intrusion: “This entry was only intended to provide a warning to the rebel group to be aware that Mr. Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”

San Mala, a senior advocacy officer with Cambodia’s youth network, said activists and rights groups were already using encrypted language to communicate via online messaging platforms, knowing authorities had been emboldened by the decree.

“As a civil society organization, we are concerned about this Internet Gateway Act because we fear our work may be monitored, our conversations overheard, or they may join online meetings with us without invitation or permission,” said Mr. San Mala, 28 .

Sopheap Chak, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the timing of the new law was worrying given the upcoming elections.

“There is a real danger that the National Internet Gateway will be used to block and censor dissent online,” she said. “This will hamper the ability of Cambodian citizens to make an informed decision about which candidate they believe is the most suitable to govern the country.”

Mr. Kea Sokun, the rapper, was released in October after serving 12 months in prison. Six months of his original 18-month sentence have been suspended to keep him in line, he said, a reminder that he is “not yet legally free”.

Khmer country”, one of the songs that led to his arrest, now has more than 4.4 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Kea Sokun is already working on his next album.

“I’m not angry, but I know what happened to me is unfair,” he said. “The government made an example of me to scare people who are speaking out about social issues.” He said he could have had his sentence reduced if he had apologized, but declined.

“I won’t say I’m sorry,” said Mr. Kea Sokun, “nor will I ever.”

Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed coverage.

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