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Government’s ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

Officials question Heng Leakhena for allegedly accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of killing political analyst Kem Ley in a video posted on her Facebook page.
Officials question Heng Leakhena for allegedly accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of killing political analyst Kem Ley in a video posted on her Facebook page. Photo supplied

Government’s ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

Government monitoring of online activities could have a “devastating effect” on freedom of expression in Cambodia, according to a new study, with most people saying that they felt less comfortable freely expressing themselves online while under such surveillance.

The study, released last week, comes just days after the National Police announced they were monitoring Facebook to detect and prevent “rebel movements” of “the enemy”.

The research, titled Perceptions of Online Political Participation and Freedom of Expression, was published by Information Technologies and International Development and surveyed 895 people to determine how free they felt sharing political opinions online.

“We found that government efforts to monitor and control online activity could have a devastating effect on online freedom of expression, with most survey respondents (88.4%) saying they would not feel free to engage online if the government enacted the proposed surveillance policies and practices,” the report says.

“These responses are particularly relevant in light of recent government announcements that it will install surveillance equipment directly into the country’s Internet service providers and that it will create cyberwar teams to monitor the Internet for antigovernment messages.”

While the majority of those surveyed said they felt “very free” or “somewhat free” to “express their opinion online without repercussions”, almost 16 percent did not. Of those, more than 65 percent feared legal repercussions.

The “Cyber War Room strike team” made headlines earlier this year following leaks from Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap’s email account that revealed a number of slanderous memes and an attempt to “justify the arrest” of former opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Meanwhile, the National Police’s semiannual report last week said police had “noticed the tricks caused by the enemy, which still continues to attempt to cause social chaos and attacks . . . to create a rebel movement against the government, most prominently through the use of Facebook”, adding that police were monitoring the social media site to prevent such movements.

Legal action has also been taken against a number of people for expressing opinions online. In one case in June, an arrest warrant was issued for a former garment worker who threw her sandal at a billboard bearing the face of Prime Minster Hun Sen in a video circulated on social media.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Chak Sopheap said that the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression from surveillance and prosecution was “unsurprising”, given a recent string of prosecutions against people for “legitimately expressing their political views online”.

“Political debate and the free exchange of ideas [are] particularly important at election time, and no internet user should have to fear that simply expressing their thoughts and opinions could land them in jail,” Sopheap said in an email.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, however, defended the government’s record and stressed freedom of expression must not infringe on the rights of others.

“We do not use the courts to oppress anyone,” Siphan said. He raised the case of a woman who was arrested for accusing Hun Sen of orchestrating the murder of political analyst Kem Ley, and said such accusations without proof “jeopardise freedom of expression”.

Cambodian Center for Independent Media Director Pa Nguon Teang said the government should focus on “education” to overcome fake news online, “not oppression”.

“There might be an increase of oppression,” Nguon Teang said, referring to the coming July 2018 national election.

“The ruling party will be more concerned about the election result.”

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