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Bloggers fear online expression under threat

Mark Tilly and and Ros Chanveasna / Khmer Times Share:
People making comments on social media have to be careful in most countries in Southeast Asia. KT/Chor Sokunthea

While her blog is not inherently political, 22-year-old Catherine Harry is all too aware of the knife-edge situation bloggers with such vocal and strident opinions as herself face in the current political climate.

“It seems as though the authorities aren’t comfortable with people’s ability to express themselves in public,” she said yesterday.

“It’s understandable, since it’s easier to control ‘sheeple’ than those with strong, opposing opinions. It shows their insecurity.”

Clearly not one to mince her words, Harry’s blog, “A Dose of Cath”, covers largely feminist issues in both English and Khmer. She touches on topics like body positivity and education on topics such as menstruation that have in the past been described as un-Khmer.

“Some people accuse me of destroying the Khmer culture,” she said in a recent post on her Facebook page.

“Now, the 21st century is enough to open eyes, open to accept something new. If we live in the well, we will not know how the outside of the world looks and how it’s going.”

The National Police released a 15-page report earlier this week detailing their efforts to monitor Cambodian Facebook posts which they believe are causing social chaos.

With many media outlets controlled by the state, social media is regarded as one of the last bastions of freedom of speech in the kingdom, according to an early 2016 report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

“The internet has quickly become the primary arena for free political debate in Cambodia, where

disenfranchised citizens are increasingly utilising online activism to challenge widespread abuses and demand political reform,” the report states.

Cambodia’s youth have flocked to the medium, with a report released last month by political youth group Politkoffee showing it was one of the key ways young people could express themselves and remain politically engaged.

A lot of the things people post on social media are not factual and some make political comments which can result in some serious problems for them. KT/Chor Sokunthea

While staying out of the realm of politics, Harry said she had friends and fans voice their concerns over the police report, with its arbitrary definitions of social chaos.

“After hearing about the crackdown, she [a friend] is concerned that our page might be a target, despite it not being political,” she said.

“We might be deemed as ‘causing chaos’ in a conservative’s point of view.”

Fellow blogger, 19-year-old N. Reingseiy, who did not want her full name published, said other young Cambodians share Harry’s fears.

“I have a friend who’s a well-known blogger here. I help her with her blogging here and there, and she’s wondering if this crackdown will affect us,” she said.

“We mostly shy away from politics, but our primary topics are related to social issues, which means that there’s at least a very minimal association with faults and flaws of the current government.”

National Police spokesman General Kiet Chantharith said anything posted online that could affect society negatively would be met with legal action.

“If posting of information gives benefit to society, it doesn’t matter with it. If posting affects [society] and breaks the law, police forces will take legal action,” he said.

“There are some people who use it for the sake of things to insult and do whatever is unreasonable on other people.”

What is deemed by the police and the government as unreasonable and causing chaos online seems arbitrary, according to CCHR Executive Director Chak Sopheap, who noted that authorities’ threats will limit people’s willingness to express themselves freely online.

“The Cambodian authorities’ now familiar invocations of ‘chaos’, ‘instability’ and ‘colour revolution’ criminalise legitimate free expression and undoubtedly have a chilling effect on political debate,” she said via email.

“It is unacceptable that internet users should feel the need to censor themselves or worry about facing criminal charges when they share their thoughts online.”

Several Cambodians have been jailed based on what they shared on social media, one of the most prominent being 26-year-old Kung Raiya.

The political science student was jailed in August 2015 for calling for a “colour revolution” online. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “incitement”.

Poltikoffee member Sen Chantarasingh, who authored the June report, said that while the police report could lead to people feeling discouraged from political participation and expression, the current political environment requires Cambodians to be mindful of what they say.

“As a participant in democracy, one is expected to have a general grasp of what is going on around them, thus a person should not fear if he or she is actually participating in a constructive manner,” he said.

Sopheap said online based prosecutions, clearly deemed by the government as unconstructive, will continue to undermine Cambodian citizens’ democratic rights, particularly in the lead-up to next year’s national elections.

“Recent prosecutions of internet users and other critical voices appear designed to send a clear message to Cambodian citizens ahead of the elections that any dissent or criticism will not be tolerated,” she said.

However Chantarasingh said the elections were an irrelevant factor, stating that users who don’t antagonise the government had nothing to fear.

“If political participators remain constructive instead of inflammatory, a crackdown is unlikely to happen regardless of the political timeline,” he said.

Reingseiy said these issues were particularly pertinent to people who had family members working for the government, noting that because of its hierarchical nature, party workers may have their livelihoods or future prospects threatened if relatives are seen to speak out online.

“Cambodian youths, especially, will be discouraged to join in the discussion either because their parents/family members are government workers with their jobs on the line, or the possibility of being devoid of job opportunities,” she said.

“Everything here is an escalator system – once you displease the system, you get shunned by the system.”

Chea Pov, the director of the Anti-Technology Crime Unit, said a written letter had to be submitted to the National Police headquarters before he was allowed to comment.

With both General Chantharith and Y Sokhy, the director of the Department for Combating Terrorism and Transnational Crimes in the Ministry of Interior, declining to comment or say specifically how social media posts will be monitored, Reingseiy believes the police’s bark could be worse than their bite.

“I have a feeling that this news of a crackdown is to instill fear in those daring to express their opinions on social media. They probably won’t go hardcore on the intervention itself,” she said.

Harry, however, said it was hard to know how hard if any action would be taken.

“If they feel more threatened with people’s freedom of expression, they might just do what they can to take that away,” she said.

“Who knows where the wind may blow?”

With about 70 percent of Cambodia’s population under the age of 30, Sopheap said freedom of expression both on and offline for Cambodia’s youth will play an integral role in the country’s future.

“Encouraging free political discussion in all its forms, online or otherwise, promotes youth engagement in politics and the development of a well-informed electorate, as well as being a necessary condition for free and fair elections,” she said.

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