Cambodia’s Internet Could Soon Be Like China’s: State-Controlled

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four men in plain clothes showed up at his photography shop near Angkor Wat and took him to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had released two songs on YouTube and the men said they needed to know why he had written them.

“They kept asking me: ‘Who is after you? Which party do you vote for?’” said Mr. Kea Sokun. “I told them: ‘I have 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 an overcrowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics. His case is part of a campaign in which dozens have been sent to jail for posting jokes, poems, images, private messages and songs on the Internet.

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

Cambodia’s National Internet Portal, which will begin operations on February 16, will send all Internet traffic, including from abroad, through a government-run portal. The portal, which is mandatory for all service providers, gives state regulators the means to “prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, 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 an internet crime unit at the Ministry of the Interior, the center of the country’s strong security apparatus. Those responsible can be charged with incitement and sent to prison.

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

“Authorities are emboldened by China as an example of an authoritarian state giving Cambodia political cover, new technology and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, dean of Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, whose family He escaped from the Khmer Rouge. , the murderous regime that took power in Cambodia in 1975.

“The National Internet Portal is simply centralizing what has been a decentralized system of control over the Internet in Cambodia,” he said. “The result will be to crush what little remains of free speech online.”

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 government’s main spokesman. “We encourage people to use the Internet, until it becomes an incitement.”

Mr Phay Siphan accused human rights groups of “spreading paranoia” and described United Nations experts who have criticized the law as “part-timers”. He said he felt sorry for the young men who had been arrested because they did not speak up for themselves.

“With freedom comes responsibility,” he said. “We warned you. We lecture them, make them sign documents, and then the next week they publish the same things, not taking responsibility for maintaining peace and stability.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 and showed great zeal in publicly condemning his political rivals, seems eager to transfer his opprobrium into the digital age.

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

In August, a former agriculture teacher was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making jokes on Facebook about requiring chickens to wear anti-Covid masks. He was charged with incitement and defamation of the prime minister, as well as the minister of agriculture.

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

Of more than 30 arrests made for digital content since 2020, the most publicized involved a 16-year-old autistic boy who was released in November. 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 opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which has been banned, was in prison at the same time. He had been jailed in 2020 for criticizing Hun Sen on Facebook, where the prime minister has more than 13 million followers.

Internet service providers have asked the authorities to provide more clarity on the portal. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said in a statement that it had “joined other stakeholders to share our comments on this new law with the Cambodian government and express our strong support for a free and open internet.”

Last week, three local journalists were charged and arrested for inciting a report on a land dispute they posted on Facebook.

“We are 35 days away from D-Day, and no status update has been provided by the relevant authorities or the private sector itself. That said, we did not expect any public transparency in terms of the implementation of this,” 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 sector ISPs to remove it, with mixed success,” he said. “But the National Internet Portal gives them a much more powerful tool to crack down on free expression and dissent.”

In a rare 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 just to give a warning message to the rebel group so they know that Mr. Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”

San Mala, a senior advocacy official with the Cambodian Youth Network, said activists and rights groups were already using coded 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 access law because we fear that our work will be subject to surveillance or that our conversations will be listened to or that they may attend online meetings with us without invitation or permission.” said Mr. San Mala, 28.

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

“There is a real risk that the National Internet Portal will be used to block and censor dissenting opinions online,” he said. “This will hinder the ability of Cambodian citizens to make an informed decision about which candidate they consider most fit to rule the country.”

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

“Khmer Land”, one of the songs that got him arrested, now has over 4.4 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Kea Sokun is already working on his next album.

“I am not angry, but I know that what happened to me is unfair,” he said. “The government made an example of me to scare people who talk about social issues.” He said he could have had his sentence reduced if he had apologized, but he refused.

“I won’t say I’m sorry,” said Mr. Kea Sokun, “and I never will.”

Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed to this report.

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