Cambodia And Malaysia: Similar Tactics In Violating The Right To Freedom Of Expression

Two countries have been in the news recently in relation to governmental Internet censorship: Cambodia and Malaysia.  The former stated their intention to create a cyber-law last year, and the latter has been accused of various types of voter fraud and Internet censorship.

However, on April 28th, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights released a briefing note entitled “Freedom of Expression and Internet Censorship in Cambodia.”  It opens with an ‘Executive Summary’ of its aims:

This Briefing Note provides an overview of the use of new media in the Kingdom of Cambodia (‘Cambodia’), the recent trend towards internet censorship, and the implications for freedom of expression in Cambodia.  The first section provides an overview of internet penetration in Cambodia and the extent to which the internet is increasingly used in Cambodia. The second section provides a background on the right to freedom of expression as protected under domestic Cambodian and international law and recent efforts to legislate internet activity. The following sections then provide a summary of important cases of internet censorship and of reported self-censorship on the internet. The Briefing Note concludes with recommendations as regards freedom of expression on the internet.

This Briefing Note is written by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”), a non-aligned, independent, non-governmental organization (“NGO”) that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights – primarily civil and political rights – throughout Cambodia.

The Note highlights the rapid progression of Internet penetration: in 2009, World Bank statistics suggested that only 0.5% of the population were Internet users, and in 2010 that only 1.3% were users, whereas recent government estimates place the figure at 18% (or approximately 2.7 million people).  The majority of Cambodians do not have any access to the Internet, as most of the population lives in poor, rural areas and only a minority are affluent enough to live somewhere with the technological capability to grant access.

Facebook and Twitter are proving to be just as popular there as they are in the rest of the world, and a number of Cambodian bloggers (referred to in the Note as “cloggers”) are contributing to the “blossoming” of online activism, both disseminating information and promoting human rights, and also encouraging those in power to do the same via the Internet.  The Note cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as recognized by Cambodia) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Cambodia in 1992) as articles of law which protect freedom of expression in the country; unfortunately, it also calls freedom of expression in Cambodia “dire” and states that the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) continues to “stifle free expression and to suppress dissent.”  It refers to “extreme measures” which instill fear and creates a climate of self-censorship, and claims that “human rights activists, NGOs, journalists, bloggers and opposition parliamentarians are routinely targeted by the authorities.”  Arrests, threats, physical abuse and a corrupt judicial system do nothing to reassure users that the law will be upheld.

The principle concern is that the RGC, as of May 2012, is drafting its first ever cyber-law, supposedly to prevent “ill-willed people … from spreading false information.”  The Note draws a parallel between this potential law (in early stages of drafting and as yet unavailable to the public) and Thailand’s Computer Crime Act, suggesting it will have similar detrimental effects on political freedom.

The Note concludes with recommendations to assist the RGC to keep their Internet censorship laws in line with other nations, including treating the Internet as a form of media in its own right, refraining from inexplicably blocking entire websites, and not using refusal of access to the Internet as a punishment for individuals.

In a perfect example of what the CCHR does not wish to see happen, in the days leading up to the a big election in Malaysia on Sunday 5th May, the Malaysian people were subject to numerous ISP blocks, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks occurred against sites of the opposing People’s Alliance Coalition as well as sites of the independent media.   Cloudfare, a DdoS mitigation service, say the attacks originated in Malaysia itself, and a report by Access Now names five different Malaysian ISPs which blocked certain domains, and even tried hiding their actions – for example, a YouTube video was blocked, but the rest of the page it appeared on was intact, making it seem as though YouTube was having problems.  Further similarity to the Cambodian regime is referenced by Access Now, which reports a number of arrests of anti-government bloggers in the weeks prior to the election.

Anwar Ibrahim, of the People’s Alliance (the opposition to the Barisan Nasional Coalition, who retained power) says that the election was tainted by “unprecedented” electoral fraud, and has organized a rally in Kuala Lumpur scheduled on Wednesday 8th May.

While both countries are clearly quashing freedom of expression, both have a relatively small section of the population with Internet access.  Should expansion of access occur, may it become more difficult for the governments to repress their population?

Jean-Loup Richet

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