A decree establishing a national internet gateway that can control and monitor online activity in Cambodia is likely to seriously restrict freedom of expression in the country, journalists said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed an order to launch a National Internet Gateway—similar to China’s complex network of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall—which will regulate all online traffic in the interest of “protecting national security and maintaining social order.”
The gateway will provide authorities with “measures to prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs,” the decree said.
Internet service providers will be given a year to connect to the gateway, or else face suspension of their operating licenses and the freezing of bank accounts, although no date was announced for its launch. Users will be required to provide their true identities, according to the decree.
Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the decree includes broad language that can be used to restrict basic freedoms, including the freedom of expression. He noted that in the past, authorities have arrested people for allegedly violating “public order” and “national traditions.”
“We want to raise these concerns to review and debate or suspend the implementation of the decree establishing the gateway,” he said.
“We want a wide-ranging discussion to investigate the value of the decree to the general public.”
President of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, Ith Sothoeut, said that the decree appears to restrict freedom of expression online because all internet traffic in and out of Cambodia will be forced to pass through a gate controlled by the government.
Therefore, he said, the government can control all internet traffic, including any information that is critical of how it runs the country.
“The decree is very broad and powerful,” he said. “We have seen in the past that the nature of law enforcement was often indistinguishable between the executive, legislative, and the judicial branches, and this is a concern.”
“Once the decree is fully implemented, it could further threaten the people’s right to freedom of expression.”
Similar internet controls
China has stepped in to wield significant influence in Cambodia as relations between Phnom Penh and Western governments have waned amid concerns over the country’s human rights situation and political environment.
It was not immediately clear whether Cambodia’s government had sought assistance from Beijing on how to implement similar controls on its own internet traffic. China ranked at the bottom of a list of 65 countries in the world assessed by the U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House in its Freedom on the Net 2020 report published in October.
Ministry of Information spokesman Meas Sophoan would not comment on the decree Wednesday and referred RFA to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Several calls to Meas Po, a spokesman for the Ministry of Posts, went unanswered.
Reuters news agency cited government spokesperson Phay Siphan as saying there was no order to the internet in Cambodia and that the decree was less intrusive than regulations in the U.S. and Britain.
Statistics from the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia show that, as of August 2020, the number of internet users in the country had reached nearly 15.3 million, or almost 93 percent of the population of 16.5 million. The government has granted licenses to 38 internet service providers.
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