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International relations

Cambodia squeezes online speech despite threat of EU backlash

European delegates to decide if country keeps preferential trade status

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has been irked by false social media posts claiming that he is dead.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- Even as the European Union readies to visit Cambodia this week to decide whether the country should be removed from a preferential trade scheme due to lack of political reforms, Prime Minister Hun Sen is trying to enact two laws that could further stifle online speech, a move certain to rile EU negotiators.

Hun Sen pushed his ministers earlier this month to consider new legislation aimed at curbing "fake news" and to speed up drafting a cybercrime law, which was first proposed in 2012.

But these laws are unlikely to please the EU or the U.S., which is also threatening economic sanctions, since they will be seen as part of Phnom Penh's "commitment to continued undermining of democracy," said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

In January, the EU initiated a process to remove Cambodia from its Everything But Arms scheme -- a tariff- and duty-free trade deal -- in response to political crackdowns by the ruling Cambodian People's Party in late 2017. Unless EU negotiators feel demonstrable gains have been made regarding political freedoms and human rights, tariffs that will severely crimp Cambodia's export-driven economy could be levied next year.

"During a period of evaluation and monitoring for EBA suspension, Phnom Penh goes off and kicks dirt in the EU's face. ... Great move for the Cambodian economy," Ear added sarcastically.

Almost 40% of Cambodian exports in 2017, roughly $5.6 billion, went to Europe under the EBA scheme, according to the European Commission. Moreover, most goods produced by the textile industry -- the country's most profitable sector and largest employer -- head to Europe. But if tariffs and duties are imposed, many European buyers will likely relocate supply chains to Bangladesh, where labor costs are cheaper, or Vietnam, where productivity is higher.

While Phnom Penh has promised a slew of political and social reforms, ostensibly to placate Europe, its zeal to impose new restrictions on online speech sends a different message.

Analysts reckon that if the government follows through with the laws, they could be enacted midyear, adding to existing restrictions on online speech.

The government's rationale for pushing the legislation despite the risk of backlash is unclear. It may think that the laws are not sufficiently egregious to derail upcoming negotiations with the EU.

Some observers feel Phnom Penh is being overly optimistic -- or deluded -- in its attempts to downplay the economic harm of having its EBA status revoked. Or perhaps it is not taking the EU's warning seriously enough.

A number of incidents may have convinced Hun Sen to speed the legislation. Recent social media posts falsely reported that the prime minister had died, while others erroneously claimed that a business tycoon with close ties to the government had been arrested. Late last month, Hun Sen claimed his Facebook account was hacked and a false message posted on it threatening to shut down his social media activities in Cambodia.

Freedom House's latest "Freedom on the Net" report, published last year, noted that "internet freedom restrictions and violations have grown exponentially in recent years under the authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Hun Sen."

Political analyst Sreysrors Ly estimates that at least 10 people have been jailed recently for criticizing the Hun Sen government online, including one for simply writing on Facebook that the government was "authoritarian."

"It is true that the cybercrime law is created to maintain order and protect national security in this [online] space. However, in the context of Cambodia, it seems the law was [politically motivated]," Sreysrors Ly said.

Yet Hun Sen, who has 11 million Facebook followers, claims the proposed laws are no different from "fake news" legislation passed by the EU last year.

"Cambodia is facing serious problems associated with fake news," the prime minister said in December. He noted that members of the defunct opposition party and "opportunists" are using the internet to "pollute the social environment in an attempt to topple the legitimate government through a color revolution."

In late 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party -- the country's only viable opposition -- after it was accused of conspiring with the U.S. to foment regime change.

It still uncertain if, or when, the two laws will go on the books. According to Sophal Ear, legislation that the government deems objectionable, such as anti-corruption laws, can take more than a decade to conclude. Or it can be rushed through in just a few days, such as was the case with electoral law last year.

"These two laws appear useful for curtailing democracy, so I can't imagine it taking long for the National Assembly to rubber stamp them," Ear noted.

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