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Cambodia steps up surveillance with new Internet gateway

PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodia is powering up its new National Internet Gateway, a move activists say will allow the government to further silence the country’s embattled opposition voices.

United Nations (UN) rights experts warn the gateway, which will funnel all web traffic through a state-controlled entry point from tomorrow, 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 said.

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.

Cambodia’s new National Internet Gateway will funnel all web traffic through a single, state-controlled entry point. Photo: AFP

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.

Once fully operational, Cambodia’s new National Internet Gateway will channel all traffic through a single entry point controlled by the government.

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) said 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.

Elections are expected next year, and the CCHR says the completion of the gateway now could allow the government to block dissenting views online in the run-up to polls.