Cambodian Authorities Drafting New Laws to Curtail Freedom, Groups Say

The Cambodian government plans to tighten Internet censorship, regulate civil society organizations and effectively institutionalize land seizures as part of five laws being drafted, according to a coalition of international groups.

The Cambodian government plans to tighten Internet censorship, regulate civil society organizations and effectively institutionalize land seizures as part of five laws being drafted, according to a coalition of international groups.

The laws, which cover farmland, cybercrime, telecommunications, nongovernmental organizations and trade unions, are being drafted by government ministries, the groups told a news conference in Phnom Penh on Friday.

The proposed legislation, in addition to three judicial laws passed earlier this year that undermined the independence of courts, would further restrict free speech and other basic rights in the Southeast Asian nation, they said. 

“This is not a patchwork of legislation,” said Kwak No-hyun of Forum Asia, a network of human rights NGOs, in a joint statement issued by the coalition. “If implemented in their current form, these eight laws will restrict the space for dissenting voices and criminalize demands for justice.”

He added that if the draft laws were approved without amendment, they would put pressure on dissidents and persecute those seeking justice.

Aside from Forum Asia, the coalition included the Asia Democracy Network, Civicus, Cooperation Committee for Cambodia’s Beyond 2015 initiative, Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), International Forum of National NGO Platforms (IFP), and South East Asian Community for Advocacy (Seaca).

Five proposed laws

Local nongovernmental groups have held consultations with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government on some of the proposed laws. It was not immediately clear, however, when parliament would begin discussing them.

The proposed cybercrime law would prevent “ill-willed groups or individuals” from spreading false information and could criminalize individual input as well, while the telecommunications bill would make carriers responsible for censoring content, the statement said.

“Freedom of expression is essential for democracy, but these telecom and cyber bills could be used to jail and bankrupt citizens whose comments on social media are critical of the government,” said Consuelo Katrina A. Lopa, who represented the Asia Democracy Network and Seaca at the conference. 

The NGO law would force all civil society organizations to register and give government officials broad power to oversee their operations, said Sarah Enees of the IFP.

“We’re worried that this law could be used by the government to arbitrarily deny registration to organizations that are critical of its policies,” she said, according to the statement.

The government previously submitted to parliament a proposed law regulating associations and NGOs in 2011 but shelved it following a storm of criticism.

The statement suggested Friday that the law expected to be presented again to the legislature “would make it worse.” 

The bill on agricultural lands would institutionalize land seizures for both corporate and state use, worsening the land-grabbing situation in which Cambodian families are forced to give up their homes to make way for development projects, the statement said.

Ith Sothea, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, rejected the criticism leveled by the international groups, in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service.

He accused them of being supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

He also said that although the government welcomed recommendations from NGOs, it didn’t need to please foreigners.

“I don’t think those critics expressed fair evaluations,” he said.

‘At a crossroads’

“We’re at a crossroads in Cambodia, where the space for democratic freedoms could go either way,” said Tor Hodenfield, policy and advocacy officer of Civicus, a group dedicated to strengthening civil society and citizen action.

“On the one hand, Cambodia experienced a robust election last year, but at the same time the government intimidates activists and is proposing legislation that would enable it to silence critics.”

In the general elections held in July 2013, the opposition managed to deny the long-held two-thirds majority enjoyed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in parliament.

During their three-day visit to Cambodia, coalition delegates met with representatives from UN agencies, the European Union, World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, parliament and Ministry of Justice.

They urged the government to institutionalize mechanisms for public input, public consultations and structures for civil society interaction and to integrate this input into new drafts for laws that are formulated.

Government ministries and other state institutions should be legally required to publicly disseminate draft laws, regulations and policies and to organize public consultations and invite comments from the public, they said.

Reported by Yeang Socheameta. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.