Government officials defended the Kingdom’s record on internet freedom yesterday, despite concerns that recent and proposed legislation could curtail the rights of those speaking out online.
Addressing a conference on the issue in Phnom Penh, Meas Sophorn, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Information, said Cambodia’s record on online speech compared favourably to other countries in the region.
“Cambodia has been open for the right to use the internet. The rights opening is very broad,” he said.
But whether that will remain the case is open to question. On Monday, the National Assembly passed a law on telecommunications, which, although not publicly released, was fingered by rights group Licadho last year as imposing blanket controls for vague “national stability” and “public order” reasons.
However, Rapid Sun, director of research at the National Institute of Posts, Telecommunications and ICT, said the law would not crack down on free speech, but counter instances of online fraud, cyber-bullying and other abuses, a major theme of the conference.
“[The law will] protect the end user,” he said.
Sun also said that the law, which provides universal service obligations for telecoms, would expand internet access in the countryside, pointing out that only 20 to 30 per cent of rural mobile phone owners can access the web on their devices, compared to about 80 per cent of urban users.
“Through this law, it will allow companies or the government itself to expand coverage in remote areas,” he said.
Yet the rapid proliferation of smartphones and social media in the Kingdom has led to growing concerns that sites like Facebook would provide more opportunities for online extortion, blackmail and libel.
Hay Makara, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-cybercrime bureau, recommended that Facebook users toughen their privacy settings.
“Sharing [on Facebook] is OK, but with criminals [on the net], it can be dangerous,” he said.
But rules drafted to combat such online crimes, such as a draft bill proposed in 2014 which appears to have been scrapped, have come under fire for potentially reining in freedom of speech as well.
Bun Sengkong, a 25-year-old NGO worker present at the conference, said the door was always open for legislation ostensibly related to cybercrime to be used for political ends.
“They can interpret the law the way that they want,” he said.