Cambodia is powering up its new National Internet Gateway (NIG), a move activists say will allow the government to further silence the country’s embattled opposition voices, despite delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
UN rights experts warn the gateway, which will funnel all web traffic through a state-controlled entry point, will have a “devastating” effect on privacy and free speech.
It is the latest move by authoritarian ruler Hun Sen to clamp down on dissent in a country that has arrested dozens for online posts in recent years, critics say.
The NIG was due to begin operations on Wednesday but the controversial plans have been postponed due to Covid-19, an official told Nikkei Asia on Tuesday.
“I wish to let you know that the implementation of NIG will be postponed due to the disruption caused by the spreading of Covid-19 pandemic,” So Visothy, a spokesman for the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, told Nikkei Asia.
The deadline for internet service providers and telecommunications companies to connect to the gateway had been set for Wednesday, according to a subdecree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen that established the legal framework for the system a year ago.
Hip-hop artist Kea Sokun, whose lyrics about injustice and corruption have struck a chord with Cambodia’s disaffected youth, was among those jailed.
As his music clocked up millions of views on YouTube, plainclothes police came knocking in September 2020. “They kept asking who was backing me?” Kea Sokun told AFP.
Arrests and Intimidation
He was arrested and convicted of incitement, spending a year behind bars, and now fears the new gateway will lead to more people suffering the same fate. “It will be difficult to freely express opinions,” he said. “They arrested me in order to intimidate others.”
Last year, an autistic teenager, the son of a jailed opposition figure, was sentenced to eight months in jail for Telegram messages deemed insulting to the government.
Internet gateways are the points on a network where a country connects to the worldwide web. Internet service providers will be ordered to block websites and connections that adversely affect “national revenue, safety, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs”.
UN rights experts warned earlier this month that the sweeping new powers will further shrink what is left of the space for dissent in Cambodia, where Hun Sen has buttressed his 37-year rule by steadily rolling back democratic freedoms.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) says the new gateway will give the former Khmer Rouge cadre yet more ways to silence opposing voices.
In 2021, at least 39 Cambodians were arrested, jailed or had arrest warrants issued against them for online posts that fell foul of government censors, according to the CCHR.
- AFP, with additional editing by George Russell