PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Many Facebook users have regretted posting photos from a Friday night party, but few will serve time in jail as a result of an unfortunate post. 25-year-old Kong Raiya is one of those unlucky few.
The student was arrested outside Khemarak University Thursday as he waited to take the year’s final exam and was charged with inciting a revolution because of comments he posted on his Facebook page on August 7.
This is just the latest in a string of arrests punishing people for Facebook posts, but unlike the other suspects – including opposition senator Hong Sok Hour – Mr. Raiya wields no political influence and leads no political party. This has led analysts to call the arrest a violation of freedom of expression online.
“This is not about one person,” said Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson. “Rather it’s all about intimidating the students and youth in Phnom Penh to think twice before using their right to express views.”
One Man Revolution
According to Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mr. Raiya posted a message earlier this month encouraging a “color revolution” – a term used for popular uprisings that overthrew governments in the Balkans and Middle East – and saying he would support a revolution in Cambodia even if he was “arrested or killed.”
Analysts say the student’s post did not pose any clear and present danger to public safety, and call the arrest an overreaction by the government. “He has no money, he doesn’t know anyone, he can’t [start a revolution],” said Sok Touch, a political science professor who taught Mr. Raiya at Khemarak University. “To us, he’s like a child, playing.”
Sorthy So, spokesman for the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the post was little more than a young person seeking attention. “He was just sharing his ideas online,” he said, “This young student just wanted to attract attention from others.”
But government officials insist that even a Facebook post by a political science student could be enough to cause anarchy in Cambodia. “A fire can start from a single spark and burn down a house,” said Mr. Sopheak. “So we have to clear out this kind of trouble…we don’t want to have Cambodia in chaos.”
The government plans to prosecute the student under Articles 494 and 495 of the Penal Code, which prohibit “provocation to commit offenses… by any means of audio-visual communications to the public.” The crimes carry a maximum sentence of two years.
Monitoring the Internet
In 2014, the government floated the idea of creating a “cyber war team” responsible for patrolling Facebook and other social media to find inflammatory posts like Mr. Raiya’s. The law was put on hold in 2014, and government spokesman Phay Siphan said there is no government department currently assigned to monitoring the web.
Mr. Siphan also countered claims that the government secretly monitors citizens’ web traffic through backroom deals with Internet service providers. “We don’t want to monitor anyone,” he said. Instead, the government relies on reports from citizens who spot questionable posts and report them to government officials.
Prosecutions like this may become more common as the government ramps up its policing of the Internet. The government has continued to discuss creating a cybercrime law to give it broader powers to control the Internet, with Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication spokesman Makara Khov saying his office is “gathering information” to help draft a possible law.
Analysts worry that the new cybercrime law may be as restrictive on freedom of speech as the earlier draft.
“The whole discussion of a potential cybercrime law is part of this ongoing government effort to get control of the Internet and limit critical online discourse about the government,” said Mr. Robertson.
Mr. So said the recent high-profile arrests of people because of posts on social media could have a chilling effect on free speech. “I think this will make social media users feel that they need to be censored,” he said, “especially when talking about political issues. Online censorship has become more and more serious.”
Mr. So’s organization, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), has joined other groups in Cambodian civil society in drafting a “bill of rights” for Internet users in Cambodia aimed at countering this chilling effect. The draft bill of rights, called the “Statement of Principles of Internet Freedom,” would protect users from Internet surveillance and protect freedom of speech.
The government, meanwhile, has said that avoiding revolution takes precedence over freedom of speech. “Of course, we have the freedom of expression, but this freedom cannot go beyond the law,” Mr. Sopheak told Khmer Times.
Independent analyst Chey Tech contested that Mr. Raiya’s post did not violate the law. “This is just an expression of an idea,” he said, “That is not a crime.”
Additional reporting by Igor Kossov