PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On the day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four plainclothes men came to his photo shop near Angkor Wat and took him to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had released 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 said to them, ‘I’ve never even voted, and nobody controls me.'”
The 23-year-old artist, who says his songs are about the daily struggle in Cambodia, was sentenced to 18 months in a crowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics. His case is part of a crackdown in which dozens have been sent to prison for posting jokes, poems, photos, private messages and songs on the internet.
The increased controls reflect an increasingly restrictive digital environment in Cambodia, where a new law will allow authorities to control all web traffic in the country. Critics say the decree puts Cambodia on a growing list of countries that have embraced China’s authoritarian model of internet surveillance, from Vietnam to Turkey, and will deepen the clash over the future of the web.
Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway, which will go live on February 16, will direct all internet traffic – including from abroad – through a government-operated portal. Mandatory for all service providers, the gateway gives state regulators the means 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 of the Ministry of the Interior, the center of the country’s robust security apparatus. Those responsible could be charged with sedition and sent to prison.
But human rights groups say the new law will make it even easier for authorities to monitor and sanction online content, and that the recent arrests are designed to further intimidate citizens into self-censorship in a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in the law. constitution.
“The authorities are encouraged by China as an example of an authoritarian state that gives Cambodia political cover, new technology and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, a dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, whose family escaped. to the Khmer Rouge. , the murderous regime that seized power in Cambodia in 1975.
“The National Internet Gateway is just centralizing a decentralized system of control over Cambodia’s internet,” he said. “The result will be to destroy what little remains of free speech online.”
Cambodian authorities have defended the decree as essential to peace and security, rejecting allegations of censorship or the idea that freedom of expression is under threat. “There is a free press in Cambodia and freedom on the internet,” said Phay Siphan, the government spokesman. “We encourage people to use the internet until it becomes incitement.”
Mr Phay Siphan accused human rights organizations of “spreading paranoia” and described United Nations experts who have criticized the law as “part-time jobs”. He said he felt sorry for the youths who were arrested for not speaking for themselves.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” he said. “We warn them. We lecture them, have them sign documents, and the next week they post the same things, without taking responsibility for maintaining peace and stability.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 and showed great zeal when he publicly denounced his political rivals, seems keen to transfer his disgrace to the digital age.
When a former monk and activist posted a scornful poem about the loss of the country’s forests on the prime minister’s Facebook page, Mr. Hun Sen described the act as “extremist” and ordered the police to track down the 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 forcing chickens to wear anti-covid masks. He was charged with sedition and defamation of the prime minister, as well as the agriculture minister.
Weeks later, a farmer, frustrated by the government’s failed promise to subsidize longan crops while the pandemic kept borders closed to exports, posted a video of tons of his annual crop rotting. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Of the more than 30 arrests based on digital content since 2020, the most publicized involved an autistic 16-year-old who was released in November. The teen, Kak Sovann Chhay, was jailed for comments he made in a chat group on Telegram’s private messaging app.
His father, a leading member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which is banned, was in prison at the same time. He was 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 clarity about the gateway. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement that it has “joined other stakeholders by sharing our feedback on this new law with the Cambodian government and expressing our strong support for a free and open internet.”
Last week, three local journalists were charged and detained for sedition over a land dispute report they posted on Facebook.
“We are 35 days from D-Day and no status update has been provided by the relevant authorities or the private sector itself. That said, we did not expect any public transparency on 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 tried 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 tackle free speech and dissent.”
In a bizarre move in September, the prime minister “bombs” an online gathering for members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. He took to Facebook to explain the break-in: “This post was just to give a warning message to the rebel group to be aware that Mr Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”
San Mala, a senior advocacy official with the Cambodian Youth Network, said activists and rights groups were already using coded language to communicate through online messaging platforms, knowing authorities had been encouraged by the decree.
“As a civil society organization, we are concerned about this internet gateway law because we fear that our work may be monitored or our conversations overheard or that they could join online meetings with us without invitation or permission.” said Mr San Mala, 28.
Sopheap Chak, the 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 dissent online,” she said. “This will hinder Cambodian citizens’ ability to make an informed decision about which candidate they deem most suitable to rule the country.”
mr. Kea Sokun, the rapper, was released in October after serving 12 months in prison. Six months of his original 18-month jail term were suspended to keep him in line, he said, a reminder that he is “not yet legally free”.
‘Khmer Land’, one of the songs that got him arrested, 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 it’s unfair what happened to me,” he said. “The government has made an example of me to scare people who talk about social issues.” He said he could have reduced his sentence if he had apologized, but he declined.
“I won’t say I’m sorry,” Mr. Kea Sokun said, “and I never will.”
Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed coverage.