PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four men in civilian clothes showed up at his photography shop near Angkor Wat and took him to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had posted two songs on YouTube, and the men said they needed to know why he wrote them.
“They kept asking me, ‘Who’s behind you? Which party do you vote for? said Mr. Kea Sokun. “I told them, ‘I never even voted, and nobody’s checking on me.'”
The 23-year-old artist, who says his songs speak to daily struggles in Cambodia, was sentenced to 18 months in an overcrowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics . His case is part of a crackdown in which dozens of people have been sent to jail for posting jokes, poems, photos, private messages and songs on the internet.
The heightened scrutiny reflects an increasingly restrictive digital environment in Cambodia, where a new law will allow authorities to monitor all web traffic in the country. Critics say the decree puts Cambodia on a growing list of countries that have adopted China’s authoritarian model of internet surveillance, from Vietnam to Turkey, and will deepen the dispute over the future of the web.
Cambodia’s national internet gateway, which is expected to start operating on Feb. 16, will send all internet traffic, including from overseas, through a government-run portal. The gateway, which is mandatory for all service providers, empowers state regulators “to prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture , traditions and customs.
Government surveillance is already high in Cambodia. Each ministry has a team that monitors the Internet. Offensive content is reported to an internet crime unit at the Home Office, the center of the country’s robust security apparatus. Those responsible can be charged with incitement and sent to prison.
But rights groups say the new law will make it even easier for authorities to monitor and punish online content, and that the recent arrests are meant to further intimidate citizens into self-censoring in a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution.
“Authorities are emboldened by China as an example of an authoritarian state that gives Cambodia political cover, new technologies and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, dean of Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. University, whose family escaped the Khmer Rouge. , the murderous regime that seized power in Cambodia in 1975.
“The national internet gateway is just centralizing what has been a decentralized system of control over the internet in Cambodia,” he said. “The result will be to crush what little is left of freedom of expression online.”
Cambodian authorities have defended the decree as essential for peace and security, dismissing claims of censorship or any idea that freedom of expression is under threat. “There is a free press in Cambodia and freedom on the internet,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan. “We encourage people to use the Internet, until it becomes an incentive.”
Mr Phay Siphan accused rights groups of “spreading paranoia” and described UN experts who criticized the law as “part-time jobs”. He said he felt sorry for the young people who had been arrested for not speaking up for themselves.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” he said. “We warn them. They are lectured, they are made to sign documents, and then the following week they post the same things, without taking responsibility for maintaining peace and stability.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985 and who has shown great zeal in publicly condemning his political rivals, seems eager to transfer his stigma to the digital age.
When a former monk and activist posted a derogatory poem about the loss of the country’s forests on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, Mr Hun Sen called the act “extremist” and ordered the police to hunt him down. monk. He was arrested in October.
In August, a former agriculture professor was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making jokes on Facebook about requiring chickens to wear Covid masks. He was charged with incitement and defamation of the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Agriculture.
Weeks later, a farmer, frustrated by the government’s broken promise to subsidize longan crops as the pandemic kept borders closed to exports, posted a video showing tons of his annual crop rotting. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Of more than 30 arrests made for digital content since 2020, the most high-profile involved a 16-year-old autistic youth who was released in November. The teenager, Kak Sovann Chhay, had been jailed for comments he made in a chat group on Telegram, the private messaging app.
Her father, a senior member of the Cambodian opposition National Rescue Party, which was banned, was in jail at the same time. He had been jailed in 2020 for criticizing Mr. Hun Sen on Facebook, where the Prime Minister has more than 13 million followers.
Internet service providers have asked the authorities to provide more details on the gateway. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement that it “joined with other stakeholders to share our feedback on this new law with the Cambodian government and express our strong support for a free and open internet.” “.
Last week, three local journalists were charged and detained for incitement following a report on a land dispute they posted on Facebook.
“We are 35 days away from D-Day and no update on the situation has been provided by the relevant authorities or the private sector itself. That said, we did not expect any public transparency about the implementation of this,” Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, said this month.
“In the past, the government has attempted to block content by asking private sector ISPs to remove it, with mixed success,” she said. “But the National Internet Gateway gives them a much more powerful tool to suppress free speech and dissent.”
In a bizarre move in September, the Prime Minister “Zoom-bombed” an online meeting for members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. He took to Facebook to explain the intrusion: “This entry was just to give a warning message to the rebel group to let them know that Mr. Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”
San Mala, advocacy officer with the Cambodian Youth Network, said activists and rights groups were already using coded language to communicate on online messaging platforms, knowing that authorities had been emboldened by the decree.
“As a civil society organization, we are concerned about this internet gateway law because we fear that our work will be subject to surveillance or that our conversations will be listened to or that they may attend online meetings with us without invitation or permission,” said Mr. San Mala, 28.
Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the timing of the new law was troubling, given the upcoming elections.
“There is a real risk that the national internet gateway will be used to block and censor dissenting opinions online,” she said. “This will hamper the ability of Cambodian citizens to make an informed decision about which candidate they believe is best suited to lead the country.”
Mr. Kea Sokun, the rapper, was released in October after serving 12 months in prison. Six months of his original 18-month sentence have been suspended to keep him in line, he said, recalling that he is “not yet legally free”.
“Khmer Land”, one of the songs that made him quit, now has over 4.4 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Kea Sokun is already working on his next album.
“I’m not angry, but I know what happened to me is unfair,” he said. “The government made an example out of me to scare people who talk about social issues.” He said he could have had his sentence reduced if he had apologized, but he refused.
“I won’t say I’m sorry,” Mr. Kea Sokun said, “and I never will.”
Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed reporting.