- RINA CHANDRAN
Sovann Chhay was 16 when he was arrested in the Cambodian capital last year for writing comments on the Telegram messaging app deemed insulting to government officials. The autistic teenager was imprisoned for almost six months.
He was among at least 35 people arrested for their online activity in Cambodia last year, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which expects the numbers to rise after the launch of a new chinese style internet gateway.
A street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. PICTURE: Vanna Phon/Unsplash
All Internet traffic in Cambodia will be routed through the government-run National Internet Gateway, allowing authorities to monitor online activity, intercept and censor digital communications, and collect users’ personal data.
The gateway was due to launch last Wednesday, but on the eve of the planned rollout, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Telecommunications told reporters that it had been delayed due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He did not give a new timetable.
“It threatens to restrict freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy in Cambodia, and gives the government unprecedented authority to monitor and control all internet traffic in the country.”
– Naly Pilorge, deputy director of LICADHO, a human rights organization.
Critics say when implemented, the gateway will further undermine privacy and hamper the work of human rights defenders as the government faces international criticism over a crackdown that has decimated civil society and the opposition.
“It threatens to restrict freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy in Cambodia, and gives the government unprecedented authority to monitor and control all internet traffic in the country,” he said. said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of LICADHO, a human rights organization.
“It will become one more tool in the authorities’ arsenal to suppress freedom of expression on the internet. There is no oversight or review of actions, allowing arbitrary censorship of the internet,” she said. to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A government spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment, but authorities previously said the gateway is essential for “peace and security” in the country, and dismissed concerns about censorship.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a celebration marking the country’s 66th anniversary of independence from France, in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia November 9, 2019. PHOTO: Reuters/Samrang Pring /file photo.
From Cambodia to Indonesia and India, countries across Asia have introduced a slew of internet and data usage laws in recent years that human rights groups say increase the risk of mass surveillance and violations of freedom of expression.
Critics of Cambodia’s internet gateway, which is similar to that deployed by its close economic ally China, fear it could be used by longtime leader Hun Sen to curb dissent ahead of this year’s communal elections and national elections scheduled for 2023.
The New Internet Gateway Decree requires all service providers to register users with their correct identities. It will also allow authorities to arbitrarily disable internet access or block certain websites or domains.
State regulators will have the power to “prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morals, culture, traditions and customs,” according to the executive order. .
With such a broad mandate, the gateway will facilitate “mass surveillance”, said Sopheap Chak, executive director of nonprofit CCHR.
“The timing of its establishment is of particular concern in the run-up to elections,” she said. “There is a real risk that it will be used to block and censor dissenting opinions online, hampering the ability of Cambodian citizens to make an informed choice,” she said. added.
A cybercrime bill unveiled in 2020 had already raised concerns on the increased surveillance of Internet users and the limitation of privacy and freedom of expression online.
The bill, which authorities at the time said was intended to ‘protect security and public order’, provides for prison terms for statements that have a ‘adverse effect’ on national security or public health , security, finance and civil servants.
Long before the Cybercrime Bill or the National Internet Gateway, activists and rights groups in Cambodia used coded language and encrypted apps to communicate on online messaging platforms to evade surveillance. governmental.
Still, at least 24 people were arrested for their online activity between April and December 2020, according to data compiled by the CCDH.
CCHR “has always had to be careful in its communications and only uses secure communication channels,” Sopheap Chak said, adding that it “will try to ensure its communications are secure” even with the new gateway.
Police officers stand guard outside the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 16, 2017. PHOTO: Reuters/Samrang Pring.
For activists, the front door is another hurdle to overcome, said Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, an environmental advocacy group whose members have been repeatedly arrested for their whistleblowing.
“The level of care will need to increase, for example when using devices and communication methods known to pose a risk of state infiltration,” said Gonzalez-Davidson, who was kicked out of the country in 2015 for his activism.
“We are constantly adapting to the changing status quo and are constantly learning new techniques to stay safe. The more careful you have to be, the more energy is drained from activities aimed at opposing the regime,” he said. he adds.
Among those targeted for their online activity in Cambodia recently are two young rappers, a Buddhist monk, human rights and environmental activists, journalists and others for posts critical of the government, as well as jokes, poems and songs.
The national internet gateway could have a chilling effect on Cambodian youth and other internet users in the country of 16 million people, said LICADHO’s Naly Pilorge.
“Regardless of what action tech-savvy groups or activists may take, there will be millions of Cambodians who simply want to exercise their rights to freedom of expression online,” she said. “They will now be blocked by this new authoritarian internet infrastructure.”
When he was released last year, Sovann Chhay vowed to continue fighting for the release of his father, an opposition party member imprisoned for anti-government dissent.
Sovann Chhay’s mother, Prum Chantha, who belongs to the Friday Wives group which organizes protests to demand the release of their imprisoned husbands, fears that her son will no longer be at risk of arrest when the new gateway is put in place.
“I told him he needed to be more careful about what he said online, but I don’t think he fully understood,” she said.
“I have to watch him more – but I can’t watch him all the time like the government can.”