Work on Cambodia's secretive Cybercrime Law has been going on behind closed doors for two years, with the government so far refusing any input from civil society groups. Recently, though, a copy of the draft was leaked. Some of the proposal's provisions have raised concerns that Cambodia's ruling party could one day use the law to target its critics.
Britain-based information freedom group Article 19 has released a scathing assessment
of Cambodia's draft Cybercrime Law. The group said measures in the bill fall well below international standards, threatening freedom of expression in Cambodia.
The draft law, on which work started two years ago, has assumed increasing relevance since July's general election, which the ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, narrowly won, taking around half the vote and 68 of parliament's 123 seats.
The CPP has for years benefited from exerting complete control over all local television, along with most radio stations and newspapers.
That led their political opponents to turn to Facebook, YouTube and other online tools to communicate with supporters. As a result, the CPP was thoroughly outmaneuvered online, and the opposition took 55 seats in parliament, almost double its previous total. Opposition supporters have since claimed that the ruling party cheated its way to victory.
Political analyst Ou Virak said the CPP completely underestimated the potential of the online space, and that its efforts to catch up since then have failed. Virak pointed out that the provisions of the draft Cybercrime Law, which the government wants to put before parliament this year, need to be seen in that context.
“The ruling party is certainly frustrated at the fact that they cannot win the battle online. They have no idea what to do. They tried different things. They tried throwing a lot of money, and that didn't work. So they're obviously frustrated. And this is why the Cybercrime Law is going to be one that the government is looking at as a potential tool. Because they don't know how to respond. Certainly the election is something that is on the government's mind,” said Virak.
Virak said the ruling party knows it needs to do something to regain support. He argued that if the party was younger and less bureaucratic, it could try to adapt and compete for political allegiance of the country's million-plus young Facebook users and the three million other online users.
“But I don't think that's possible with this government. And, so yes, they will respond with trying to introduce different legislation so they can have their way,” said Virak.
The Cybercrime Law could also affect foreign hackers who have made Cambodia their home base for launching cyberattacks abroad.
On Tuesday, the government announced that it had worked with the FBI to arrest two local hackers with the online Anonymous collective. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the grounds that the investigation is ongoing.
Several clauses of the draft Cybercrime Law contain serious punishments.
For example, posting information online that a government-appointed committee deems harmful to the country's sovereignty or integrity could result in three years in jail. Other similar vague crimes include: affecting "the integrity of any government agencies or ministries or officials"; inciting "anarchism"; or causing insecurity.
Those found guilty could also be stripped of their civic rights and barred from their profession for life.
Asked to comment on the draft law, the U.S. Embassy said it understood that some independent analysts had voiced concerns about the bill on the grounds that it was overly broad and could be used to restrict online freedom of expression. An embassy spokesman said the U.S. strongly supports freedom of expression whether online or offline, and encouraged the Cambodian government to consult more widely on the draft.
Leewood Phu, who advises the Cambodian government on information technology, suggested much the same to the drafting committee. But, he said, the committee ignored the advice.
“It does not include the process of making law in a democratic country. You have to have some kind of background paper on it, and then you have to have some kind of White Paper on it, and then for public to comment on the White Paper, and then once the public is finished then you can put it to the Council of Ministers and pass it, and then to the National Assembly to pass it. But the process wasn't there,” said Phu.
There are other problems with the draft, added Phu, including that the committee did not consult any judges or lawyers - which is why punishments for similar crimes committed offline are far less severe than for their online equivalents.
Information rights group Article 19 has called on the government to consult with civil society before the draft goes any further. It's not clear whether that will happen. Despite repeated efforts, VOA was unable to reach Prak Sokhon, the minister for post and telecommunications, and two officials involved in drafting the law have so far declined to comment.