Cambodia: Secret Draft Cybercrime Law seeks to undermine free speech online

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about Cambodia’s Draft Cybercrime Law, which falls well below international standards on the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy. If passed in its current form, there is a serious risk that Cambodia’s currently free online space will backslide into the country’s deep-seated culture of secrecy and self-censorship. ARTICLE 19 obtained a copy of the Draft Law despite the attempts of the Cambodian Government to keep it secret.

The Draft Cybercrime Law has been formulated behind closed doors for far too long. With a version of the Draft Law released, the authorities can no longer deflect the legitimate concerns of the national and international human rights community,” said Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director. “The government must hold full and meaningful consultations with civil society and must ensure that it complies with international standards on the right to freedom of expression, information and privacy. In its current form the Draft Law leaves great room for the curtailment of free speech online,” he added. 

ARTICLE 19 is especially concerned by Article 28 (Contents and Websites), which criminalises online activities that are deemed to:

  • “hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia”,
  • incite or instigate “anarchism”,
  • generate “insecurity, instability and political cohesiveness”,
  • slander or undermine the “integrity of any government agencies, ministries” at all levels, or
  • damage moral and cultural values, such as “family values”.

ARTICLE 19 believes that these provisions should be entirely removed from the Draft Law, as they are extremely vague and open to abuse. For instance, many legitimate forms of online expression that challenge corruption or wrong-doing by the authorities or are simply critical of the government in place may be deemed criminal. Civil society activists may be prosecuted and imprisoned for promoting human rights. Moreover, since the proposed provisions fail to grant immunity from liability to Internet intermediaries, Internet intermediaries are put at risk of being held criminally liable for content that they did not produce. 

Several other provisions are a matter of concern from the perspective of international freedom of expression standards:

  • Penalties for speech offences under the Draft Law are heavier than that of their offline equivalent in the Cambodian Criminal Code. For instance, online slander of governmental agencies is punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 2,000,000 Riels (approximately 500 USD, i.e. five times the average monthly salary of an industrial worker) whereas slanderous denunciation offline is punishable by imprisonment of between one month up to one year and a fine between 100,000 Riels to 2,000,000 Riels. Offenses conducted online should not carry heavier penalties than that of crimes conducted offline.
  • Offences against computers such as “illegal access”, “illegal interception” or “system interferences” are drafted in broad terms, often failing to make reference to malicious or fraudulent intent. Honest mistakes over the Internet are therefore far more likely to be caught by the Draft Law and penalised.
  • Prosecutors, rather than the courts, are granted extremely broad powers to order the preservation of computer data or traffic data. This is very worrying given the intrusive nature of such measures and that prosecutors lack the independence necessary for the proper balancing of the various interests involved, especially the protection of the right to privacy.

Since the Government’s announcement in 2012 that a new law would be drafted to address cybercrime, they have not yet released a version for public consultation, despite repeated calls by national and international human rights groups for them to do so. The Government has also been silent on the Draft Law’s legislative process, not providing any indication of where it sits in the process and when it may pass. ARTICLE 19 obtained its first version (V.1) of the Draft Law as put forth by the Cybercrime Law Formulation Working Group of Council of Ministers.

Given the recent violent crackdowns on street demonstrations, the Internet is one of the few spaces left for Cambodian civil society members to share information and advocate for positive changes, however ARTICLE 19 is concerned that this space may soon become inaccessible as well.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Royal Government of Cambodia to release the latest Draft Law on Cybercrime and to hold meaningful consultations with civil society. ARTICLE 19 stands ready to provide additional comments on the Draft Law. 

You can read the copy of the Draft Law here.