A recently leaked bill before Cambodia’s parliament would be the first to explicitly outlaw cyber crime in the country, but it would also serve as a means for the Cambodian government to repress opposing political views.
The bill specifically makes it an offense to post any content that would “hinder” the country’s “sovereignty and integrity” or its “moral and cultural values,” bring about “anarchism,” or “generate insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.”
Such broad authority is a threat to freedom of speech and would be a blow to civil society and prospects for democratic reform in Cambodia. As Heritage’s Walter Lohman and Olivia Enos pointed out in a recent report, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s restrictions on traditional media have left the Internet and social media as the “only venue by which Cambodians can access unbiased public information,” which is essential for free and fair elections. Freedom House now considers Cambodia’s Internet access to be “partly free,” and this status is likely to be downgraded if the law passes.
In an effort to shed light on alleged fraud in the July 2013 elections, “hacktivists” leveled denial-of-service attacks against government websites. These attacks may have been enough to trigger drafting the suppressive legislation. Another trigger may have been the threat that social media posed to Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodia People’s Party during the election cycle. While it appears that Cambodia may be attempting to strengthen the rule of law by cracking down on cyber criminals, in reality, the ruling party is more likely attempting to rule by law and weaken democratic institutions to remain in power.
Many are hopeful that outrage from human rights organizations may be enough to cause lawmakers to reconsider. The aforementioned Heritage report recommends that the Obama Administration publicly condemn such human rights violations as well. And, though larger-scale media reforms are needed, maintaining freedom of the Internet is a necessary first step.
Roy Howell is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.