Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan has written to the ministers of interior and posts and telecommunications requesting that they take legal action against Facebook users who post insulting or defamatory material about government leaders online.
Mr. Siphan, a secretary of state, posted an open letter on his Facebook page on Wednesday threatening criminal proceedings against those who insult government figures.
Writing to Interior Minister Sar Kheng in a letter dated Thursday, Mr. Siphan requested that the minister arrange “to take legal action against the ill-intentioned and unethical persons for using social media to attack, insult and defame civil servants and government leaders.”
“Insults and defamation are not part of freedom of expression, but instead violate the rights and dignity of individuals,” Mr. Siphan wrote. “The individuals who are insulted, or whose dignity is attacked, should be respected and protected based on national and international laws.”
“Presently, within the culture of dialogue, there is a historical outlook for Cambodia, and a destination and context for building the nation and avoiding a culture of hostility and violence (verbal and physical),” the letter concludes.
An identical letter was sent to Posts and Telecommunications Minister Prak Sokhon.
Posts and Telecommunications Ministry spokesman Meas Pou and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak both declined to comment on Mr. Siphan’s request Friday.
“I have not read the letter yet, so I cannot comment on what is inside them,” General Sopheak said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Siphan said he was merely asking for existing laws against insults and defamation to be respected. Under articles 305 to 308 of the criminal code, defamation or insulting can be subject to fines from 100,000 to 10,000,000 riel, or about $25 to $2,500.
Mr. Siphan also said the government may ask Facebook to “block” the profiles of users who insult government leaders.
Reached by telephone yesterday, Mr. Siphan said he was particularly concerned by images depicting CPP leaders as Vietnamese, including images of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, edited to be pornographic.
“They use very graphic and cut-up images, like the first lady [Ms. Rany] nude, with her face put on it, and my leader [Mr. Hun Sen] and my king and my queen with cone hats, and they paint me as Vietnamese,” Mr. Siphan said.
“They abuse human rights and human dignity, so we must protect ourselves. We want to promote freedom of expression but the people who want to use social media must use it responsibly and be responsible for what they post.”
Pang Sokhoeun, who operates the popular nationalist “Khmer Sovannaphumi” Facebook page, which often posts material insulting CPP leaders and accusing them of subservience to Vietnam, posted a message on his page yesterday that said he was not afraid of Mr. Siphan’s threats.
“We have nothing to be afraid of, because we do not make accusations without reasons,” Mr. Sokhoeun wrote. “If you want to sue or lay charges, please be invited to do so.”
A commenter on Mr. Sokhoeun’s post, writing under the name “Justice Chao,” also vowed to continue posting severe insults against CPP officials.
“We Cambodian citizens…have never insulted any brave patriotic individuals, but, on the other hand, we must insult and look down upon, in the most contemptible way, those who betray their nation…and anyone who says Cambodian land is Vietnamese land,” Justice Chao said.
The surge of social media use in Cambodia over the past few years has broken the government’s decadeslong stranglehold on media, and has been widely credited with contributing to the opposition CNRP’s shock gains in the 2013 national election.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, the director of the Cambodian Center for Media Studies, said social media networks have provided a valuable outlet for citizens to express themselves, sometimes outside the bounds of politeness, and called on officials to develop thicker skins.
“Taking legal action against Facebook users is a disproportionate means to seek redress for any grievances because, unlike like journalists who are professionals and are bound by ethical principles, these are citizens who do not know much about their ethics,” Mr. Chhean Nariddh said.
“This is very dangerous for freedom of expression in Cambodia because, having gone through a long period of the repression of freedom of expression, most Cambodians aged 30 and 40 are still afraid to express themselves because of the lessons learned in the Khmer Rouge period,” he added.
“Cambodia is a democracy, and for democracy to flourish we need to have robust criticism from the public, so government officials should be willing to be criticized by the people, even if it is a little bit too rude.”