Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that he supports the prosecution of social media users who insult government officials, after a government spokesman requested such action last week in letters to the ministries of interior and telecommunications.
Mr. Kanharith, an avid social media user who regularly posts news and messages in Khmer, English and French, said in a Facebook message Sunday that he supported the government taking legal action against those who post insulting content online.
“If the person feel that he/her was insulted there is a penal code for that already,” Mr. Kanharith wrote, adding that prosecution would be an appropriate course of action against offending social media users.
“If the government brings the case to court, yes,” he said when asked if people who insult government leaders online should be prosecuted under the penal code.
Under articles 305 to 308 of the criminal code, defamation or insulting can be subject to fines ranging from 100,000 to 10,000,000 riel, or about $25 to $2,500, and relates to information, images or videos meant to be made public.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan sent letters to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Posts and Telecommunications Minister Prak Sokhon on Thursday asking them to apply the criminal code to people sharing defamatory or insulting content online.
Mr. Siphan requested that the ministers 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’s letter continues. “The individuals who are insulted, or whose dignity is attacked, should be respected and protected based on national and international laws.”
In interviews last week, Mr. Siphan said he was particularly concerned by insults suggesting that CPP officials are Vietnamese, and by images of government leaders manipulated to be pornographic or in other ways offensive.
Mr. Sokhon, the posts and telecommunications minister, said Sunday that his ministry was reviewing Mr. Siphan’s request.
“The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications asked the experts to study legal and technical means,” he said.
“Regarding legal means, we are considering whether the person who is the victim of insulting or defamation should send an individual complaint to the court, and then the court issues the order to relevant ministries to take action,” he added. “That is reasonable.”
Mr. Sokhon said the ministry could take legal action against social media users if it received an order from the government, the National Assembly or the country’s judiciary, but said it could be difficult to get information linking individuals to their online accounts.
“It is very difficult. For Facebook and social media, it is difficult to find attackers. With Facebook, we have to request the [identity of the] owner through the U.S. We cannot guarantee that they would help,” he said.
Mu Sochua, a lawmaker and head of public affairs for the opposition CNRP, said the government’s threats to take social media users to court were undemocratic.
“What Phay Siphan and the government is doing is not right,” she said. “I think as public figures, they have to be ready to accept criticism, and some criticisms may be very harsh.”
“That is not defamation,” she said of offensive comments and images posted online. “I think as long as it’s not violent—it does not incite violence—you just have to skip it.”
However, Mr. Siphan on Sunday reiterated that his request was grounded in the country’s existing laws.
“Like I explain so many times…my letter explains clearly [the balance] between freedom of expression and the human right to protect personal dignity,” he said.
“I only explain, criticism is encouraged, no problem at all. If it’s cartoons, no problem at all,” he added. “But what if someone cut out a nude photo with Mu Sochua’s face online, what would she think of that?”
Ms. Sochua said the experience would not be new to her.
“It happened to me before, there have been worse pictures that you could not have imagined put on me,” she said.
“What I had to do is see it and move on.”