Cambodia’s Lost Digital Opportunity in the COVID-19 Fight

New restrictions on online speech will be counterproductive for the coronavirus response – and damaging for the country in the long term.

The new Cambodian Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic sharply contrasts with some earlier actions of Prime Minister Hun Sen, such as allowing a U.S. cruise ship to dock in Sihanoukville in February after it had been turned away from several other East Asian ports due to the fear of contagion. While the state of emergency will effectively mitigate some of the consequences of the health crisis, it also deals a blow to the country’s already weakened civil society and to the opportunities that digital tools offer. The new restrictions threaten to last indefinitely unless the right checks are put in place.

The new law was passed by the lower house — which consists of members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party only — on April 10 on the pretext of national security. Measures that regulate citizens’ physical movements might loosen relatively soon once the virus is under control. However, and more disturbingly, new regulations on the free flow of information are already counterproductive at present and might remain after the state of emergency is lifted. Under Article 5 of the law, measures on citizens’ freedom of movement can be imposed, something that has already been seen both in democracies and authoritarian regimes. But the state of emergency also contemplates unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and the control of media and social media.

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