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“Like oxygen for democracy”: What does free expression mean to you?

By Chris Hufstader
“The constitution protects freedom of expression, and if we don’t let people speak out, what is the point of building a democracy?” says Sorn Ramana of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee. Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos for Oxfam America

Civil society leaders in Cambodia are concerned about regulations that could govern their lives online.

What if Facebook were not about vacation photos, cute kitten videos, and your uncle’s political bellyaching?

What if Facebook were one of the only places where you could feel free to speak your mind, and not go to jail or endanger your family as a result of what you said?

And what if that right were taken away from you?

This is what people in Cambodia are facing right now.

A controversial “cybercrime” bill was introduced into the Cambodian National Assembly last year. The bill outlines multiple regulations that everyday citizens could violate by publishing the wrong kind of content online.

One article in the text of the proposed bill says “any content in any medium that can be translated into social disorder, violate the country’s sovereignty, or defame an individual politician will be punishable by 1-3 years in prison and fined between 2 million and 6 million riels…($50-$1,500).”

Soeung Saroeun, director of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, an umbrella organization of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), says the bill was leaked to the public.

“If passed in current form, it will restrict freedom of speech and access to information, which is a basic part of democracy in any country in the world,” Saroeun says. “This will violate the rights of Cambodian people.”

Anxiety and action

Citizens and civil society groups in Cambodia, particularly youth, are extremely concerned about the bill’s passage.

“A cybercrime law will limit public political voice of people, and affect the fundamental human right of people to express their opinions freely,” says Tim Malay, president of the Cambodian Youth Network. “The fundamental right to free expression is a universal right, and a cybercrime law will move our right to free expression backwards.”

Malay, who is in his late ‘20s and grew up in a politically-active household in southern Cambodia, says he was inspired to work on human rights by a leadership training program that exposed him to the ideas of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Around the world young people are using internet tools to organize politically, fight corruption, and make their countries and communities stronger. Cambodia is no different. Malay says young people between the ages of 15 and 30 comprise 33 percent of Cambodia’s population and youth are becoming more active on social media in recent year, such as during the 2013 national elections in Cambodia. Facebook is the leading social media site in the country, with a total of 1,420,000 Facebook users actively online every month in Cambodia, or almost 10 percent of the population.

Tim Malay of the Cambodian Youth Network says young people will be worried about security and other concerns if Cambodia’s controversial cybercrime bill is passed, curtailing their engagement in politics. Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos for Oxfam America

“They have a right to speak out and engage in politics, but if the [cybercrime] law is passed youth will be worried about security and other concerns,” explains Malay.

He says the government has already arrested and threatened on-line activists, which he sees as a way to intimidate young people.

“If youth are scared of punishment, then politicians can do whatever they want in society.”

But youth in Cambodia are also actively advocating for freedom of expression in the “Free the Net” campaign, which is fighting the proposed cybercrime law.

Sorn Ramana, a 29-year-old project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says the campaign is important, as it will counter an opaque legislative process.

“The drafting process is not transparent, there’s no meaningful consultation,” she says.

Civil society groups received a leaked version of the cybercrime law in April 2014, but the government announced it had “scrapped” the drafted law in December. Ramana expressed concerns, however, that the most repressive elements of the law could still be adopted “without us knowing about it” through a sub-decree, the equivalent of an executive order in the US.

A country of promise, and contradictions

Looking strictly at the numbers, Cambodia is reducing poverty and growing its economy by more than seven percent per year. It’s seeing more and more investment in the garment industry, construction is booming, and the percentage of children in primary school is increasing. On the surface, Cambodia appears to be a country slowly bouncing back from the wars of the last century.

Look past the macroeconomic numbers and talk with leaders of Cambodia’s nongovernmental (NGO) sector and you get a slightly different perspective. While leaders are full of hope for a country making progress, they still see serious rural poverty, a budget relying heavily on foreign aid, and a more and more repressive political environment.

“There is no confidence and trust between civil society, the national assembly, and the courts,” says Soeung Saroeun, of the NGO umbrella organization, the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia.

He is sitting in front of a banner stretching across the entire wall of a conference room in his office in Phnom Penh. It’s covered in the names and logos of international and Cambodian non-governmental organizations. More than a thousand NGOs are active in the country, according to research by Oxfam.

Soeung Saroeun of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, a network of NGOs, is concerned a controversial cybercrime bill proposed in Cambodia would severely limit people’s internet access and use. Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos for Oxfam America

He says that civil society organizations in Cambodia are intent on working to improve the country for the poorest, but they are facing a legislative agenda bent on narrowing their work. One example is a proposed Law on Associations and NGOs, which was drafted without adequate consultation with civil society and threatened to outlaw advocacy and campaigning. Pressure from Cambodians and international donors postponed the law two years ago, but there are several others bills, like the cybercrime law and bills on trade unions and agricultural land, that many fear will quell national dissent.

“Freedom of expression is like oxygen to a democracy,” Ramana of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights says. “The constitution protects freedom of expression, and if we don’t let people speak out, what is the point of building a democracy?”

Calling out and connecting

Despite the political challenges that civil society organizations in Cambodia face, people are willing to stand up their rights.

Ramana went to university to study finance, and volunteered in rural communities during school vacations. Despite the promise of a lucrative private sector job, she couldn’t deny her personal passion to be a part of Cambodia’s development. So she shifted her career into the realm of international human rights, which she sees as crucial to the future of her country.

“We want people to express themselves, participate in political life and a multiparty democracy, and be able to raise their voices without fear or manipulation,” she says. “The internet’s important. It’s how we can send a message around the world so people know what is happening here.”

Ramana also says it’s important for Cambodians to hear from others through the internet, particularly those like her on the front line of defending human rights and building democracy in the face of a repressive atmosphere.

“If we know others around the world support us, we know we are not alone.”

This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local leaders who are standing up for accountability, making demands of their government, and getting results in the fight against injustice. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.

Read the briefing note

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