In his first speech since taking office in May, the UN’s newly appointed special rapporteur to Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, raised concern over a new law creating a national internet gateway and over any form of control over media or online access.
“Any limitation must be reasonable according to the international standard,” he said. “If your authorities do impose those restrictions on your access to public information then the authorities have [acted] against abiding by international standards such as legality, necessity, and legitimacy,” he said, speaking at a world press freedom high-level forum, co-organized by UNESCO and Swedish Embassy.
On February 16, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree creating a single national internet gateway (NIG) to control the flow of online traffic in the country.
According to the sub-decree, the NIG will require operators or ISPs to provide a monthly, quarterly, and yearly report to the government and give the government the right to monitor a company’s infrastructure and equipment.
Critics of the law have said it will give the government the ability to monitor user activity and censor content, allowing officials to exercise control over the flow of information.
Vitit said on the webinar on Thursday that the new law could lead to repression and a weakening of Cambodia’s democracy.
“What we are advocating is the broadness of democracy and civil space. If talking about accessing public information, I think we should advocate the broad and wide access to data,” he said.
He also supported creation of a robust access to information law that balances access with privacy rights. Cambodia for years has had an access to information law in the works, but the most recent draft issued last September drew ire from rights groups over its lack of protection for whistleblowers and how it would allow officials to arbitrarily deny requests. A draft cybercrime law, meanwhile, has drawn concern among rights groups that it will allow enhanced surveillance of internet users, and infringe on privacy rights and free speech online.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said the law on access to information would be sent to the Council of Ministers soon and its approval had been slowed by COVID-19.
“Now the draft is under consultation at the Ministry of Justice in relation to the penal code. Both Ministry of Information and Ministry of Justice are speeding up even in the context of COVID-19,” he said.
Sophorn said the government has always been strongly committed to respect the freedom of expression, the rights of press freedom to ensure information access for all.
“The government has created a good environment in the media sector without discrimination, intimidation, and political affiliation,” he said.
Speaking at the webinar, W. Patrick Murphy, the US ambassador to Cambodia, said that press freedom is a vital component in a democratic and open society, and that reporting is more vital than ever amid the pandemic.
“Journalists help this by informing the audience of the physical and the financial hardship to come about because of the red zones. And it is important for the government to learn from mistakes and to think better to ensure human suffering was addressed,” he said.
Speaking at the event, Prak Chan Thul, a correspondent for Reuters expressed concern over the government’s restrictions against journalists, especially during the COVID-19 outbreaks.
“The public needs real and trustworthy information, which serves the interest of the people as well as the government to know what happens at the grassroots,” he said. “The use of criminal laws against journalists is a threat and we urge [the government] to use the information law rather than send [journalists] to prison.”
Kann Vicheika, an independent journalist, said that journalists have faced many challenges during COVID-19, including criminal charges, arrests, and imprisonment, as well as salary cuts.
“Restrictions on reporting and access to information from government officials are also a challenge,” she said. “Female journalists also face more challenges than men, especially in the face of all forms of harassment during their work.”