Cambodia’s current draft cyber-crime law would severely undermine press freedom, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, said today, urging the government to hold consultations with media organizations and journalists groups before moving ahead.

According to information received by IPI, the draft provides for imprisonment between one months and three years, as well as a fine ranging from 2 million to 10 million Cambodian riels (€415 to €2,000) for “knowingly and intentionally making a false statement or misrepresentation” that amongst other things undermines public confidence in the government.

“The government should hold consultations with media outlets, journalists’ groups and human rights organizations, and accommodate their inputs in the proposed law”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “In its current form the draft law has numerous ambiguities and if enacted without consultations it will severely undermine press freedom and force journalists to practice self-censorship.”

According to media reports, news organizations and human rights groups are concerned about the provisions in draft that give enormous powers to authorities to take action against internet service providers and users.

While the law will make “fake news” a punishable offence in the country, the draft does not provide a clear definition of what constitutes fake news.

Journalists speaking to IPI on the condition of anonymity said that in the absence of a definition, the law will be open to interpretation by authorities, who could classify any report as “fake news” and arrest journalists.

In late January, Prime Minister Hun Sen had cautioned Cambodians against spreading misinformation and fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, over a dozen journalists have been summoned and questioned by the authorities on their news reporting.

In  April, Cambodia’s national assembly passed a state of emergency law granting the prime minister vast and new powers to control and censor the country’s media. The law, which is ostensibly aimed at tackling misinformation about COVID-19, allows the regime to monitor communications, social media and control access to information.

The media licenses of Rithysen radio station, owned by Sok Udom, and TV FB, maintained by Sovann Rithy were revoked by the information ministry. Both journalists were later arrested and charged with the “incitement to commit a felony”.

On June 25, Ros Sokhet, the publisher of Khmer Nation newspaper, was arrested for a Facebook posts critical of the Hun Sen. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a warrant on June 24 ordering the arrest of Sokhet for “incitement to provoke serious chaos in social security”.

In one of his Facebook posts, Sokhet had expressed the view that the prime minister was not offering any solutions to people struggling to pay off their debts to banks. In another, he criticized Hun Sen’s statements saying that his eldest son will take over as the next leader of Cambodia.

On June 26, Cambodian Journalists Alliance had urged officials to conduct a thorough investigation before arresting journalists for their posts and comments on Facebook.