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UNHR blasts Cambodian telecoms, cybercrime laws

Cambodia was in the spotlight in the 33rd regular session of the United Human Rights council. The report from the UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith highlighted two concerns when it came to telecommunications industry - a vague and yet draconian telecoms law adopted last year and a totally secret cybercrime law that is currently being drafted.

The report from the Special Rapporteur noted that, “the law on telecommunications adopted in 2015 requires telecommunications companies to turn over certain data to the Government upon request”.

Article 6 of the law obliges telecommunications service providers to provide data on their users to government authorities, even if they are not presented with a judicial warrant.

Article 80 of the law says that establishment, installation and utilization of equipment in the telecommunications sector, if these acts lead to national insecurity, shall be punished by sentences from seven to 15 years imprisonment.

Article 97 allows secret surveillance of any and all telecommunications where it is conducted with the approval of a “legitimate authority”, but it does not specify what a legitimate authority means. It is feared that this would mean all communications, even private communications, can now be monitored at will.

The report by UN Special Rapporteur urged Cambodian authorities to ensure that, “Clear implementation guidelines reflecting prevailing international human rights should be carefully drafted and disseminated in order to ensure that the law is applied in a manner that regulates without unnecessarily restricting the activities of civil society bodies, trade unions and human rights defenders.”

The report called for protection of freedom of expression on the internet, given the upcoming regional and national elections in 2017 and 2018.

The Special Rapporteur noted that two-fifths of the Cambodian population now regularly uses the internet and Facebook has become the predominant means of social interaction, activism and communication. It noted that a number of senior government officials, not least the Prime Minister, now author official Facebook pages.

The Special Rapporteur urged that particular care should be taken to ensure respect for freedom of expression when arresting, detaining and prosecuting those posting materials on social media.

However, a major stumbling block lies with a draft cybercrime law that is being drafted in secret. The Special Rapporteur urged dissemination of the drafts so that meaningful discussion of the law may take place.

While most countries focused only on the persecution of human rights defenders and the upcoming elections, New Zealand dedicated a portion of its UN HRC statement to the telecoms law, “The right to freedom of expression and freedom from intimidation, no matter one’s political views, is inherent in many of the human rights instruments which Cambodia has agreed to. Similarly, civil society requires space to operate that allows for open dialogue and freedom of assembly. New Zealand notes that several new pieces of legislation, in particular the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations (“LANGO”) and the new Telecommunications Law include drafting that has the potential to be widely interpreted, and therefore arbitrarily applied. In some instances, this could adversely impact on the right to freedom of expression. New Zealand supports the recommendation by the Special Rapporteur that guidelines be prepared to support fair and consistent implementation of these laws.”

Earlier in March, Cambodian NGO LICADHO issued an analysis of the new telecoms law that it labelled a severe threat to freedom of expression and private communication that hid behind the facade of technical intent.

LICADHO’s report noted that, the telecoms law “allow(s) the government to secretly intrude into the private lives of individuals, destroy evidence before criminal trials, and seize control of the entire telecoms industry if arbitrarily deemed warranted. Its excessive measures, particularly those creating new criminal offenses, reveal the true intent of the law: to intimidate individuals, punish the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms and quash individual and group dissent.”

LICADHO director Naly Pilorge said, “With the Telecoms Law that allows for any online expression, whether public or private, to be overheard and punished, the government is signaling even more clearly their intention to throttle freedom of expression online.”