A human rights group is criticizing Cambodia’s Law on Telecommunications (Telecoms Law) for provisions that it says undermine free speech and violate the privacy of individuals. The government described the criticism as “unreal interpretations” of the law.
The Telecoms Law took effect last December 7, 2015. It was passed to promote the growth of the telecommunications sector which the government hopes will contribute to the country’s overall development.
But for human rights group Licadho, the law could quash fundamental rights and freedoms. It added that the law “contains no reference to the right to freedom of expression or its protection.” Some observers suspect that the law reflects the ruling party's desire to stifle online discussions as elections approach in 2017 and 2018.
The group issued a legal briefing on March 31, 2016 which identified several provisions of the law that could pose a threat to civil liberties.
For example, Article 6 of the law obliges telecommunications service providers to provide data on their users to government authorities, even if they are not presented with a judicial warrant.
Another provision that could curtail the rights of individuals is Article 80 which states that:
Establishment, installation and utilization of equipment in the telecommunications sector, if these acts lead to national insecurity, shall be punished by sentences from seven to 15 years imprisonment.
There is no explanation as to what constitutes “national insecurity”. Licadho is worried that “this could heavily punish legitimate expression via radio shows, television, online and even through private messages and phone conversations between individuals, should the authorities determine it to be a threat.”
Meanwhile, Article 97 allows secret surveillance of any and all telecommunications where it is conducted with the approval of a “legitimate authority”, but it does not specify what this means. For Licadho, “this appears to create a power to secretly eavesdrop without any public accountability or safeguards to protect individuals’ right to privacy.”
Licadho also pointed out that the law promotes excessive state control and regulation over media facilities. Aside from broadening the mandate of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, the law has designated the appointment of “telecommunications inspection officials” in order to effectively implement the law.
For Licadho director Naly Pilorge, the law could be used by the ruling party, which has been in power in the past three decades, to silence online dissent:
The 2013 national elections demonstrated the power of social media as a critical platform – so it is no surprise that the ruling party wants to stifle this vibrant online space in time for elections in 2017 and 2018.
Rhona Smith, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, who visited the country last month, acknowledged that there was public concern over the “politicized” implementation of the Telecoms Law.
While Internet access has increased in Cambodia in recent years, various groups have noted that an increasing number of Facebook users have been arrested and prosecuted in the courts for criticizing politicians.
Responding to the study by Licadho, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications denied that the law has provisions that violate freedom of expression. It accused Licadho of making “unreal interpretations”. It added that consultations were made with various stakeholders in drafting the law. Finally, it said that the law was formulated “following international standard ensuring protection of legal interest of relevant individuals.”
Whether or not the law is a threat to human rights, the government of Cambodia should make sure that media freedom is guaranteed and that Internet users are not unjustly persecuted when they express opinions or critiques of politicians.