Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Tag: freedom of expression

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 18 February 2015)
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wearing Guy Fawkes masks

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, stand outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. AFP

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

Over the past few weeks, the government has repeatedly asserted its intention to introduce a state secrets law in Cambodia. In a country that has not yet adopted a solid access to information law and has showed no hesitancy in restricting freedom of expression, such declarations are a cause for serious concern. In fact, the public right of access to information is not only the other side to freedom of expression, it is the backbone of democracy.

In recent years, a significant number of states around the world have engaged in public debate over the balance between the right to information and the need for state secrets, subsequently adopting or revising classification regimes and related laws. Finding the right balance remains though a delicate exercise that requires attentive reflection and large consultations. In 2013, for example, Japan passed a state secrecy law that sparked widespread criticism and concerns as it includes serious threats to whistleblowers and even journalists reporting on areas the government defines as secrets.

Similarly, China has been internationally condemned for broadly classifying information as secrets and using its own state-secrets law to jail dissidents.

In 2013, 17 organisations and five academic centres, in consultation with four special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and the media from the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as with the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, issued a set of principles on national security and the right to information, the so-called Tshwane Principles. This authoritative document restated that national security and the public’s right to know do not go necessarily in the opposite direction.

This is certainly true, and the Cambodian government has repeatedly asserted that the draft law on state secrets would address national security issues, such as the leaking of secret information of the police, military and government. However, a state secrets law could help conceal government wrongdoings and further limit the right to information if clear standards or procedures for classifying or otherwise withholding information on security grounds are not properly established. Last year’s comments from Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan go in that direction. He made the suggestion that people were not supposed to have a copy of the leaked cybercrime draft law and that they could be in trouble.

Vagueness of the criteria used for classifying information as a “state secret” and a lack of transparency in the drafting process, which would not be new to the Cambodian government practice, are not an option when it comes to the right to information and in turn to democracy. In fact, no state secrets law should be passed until after an access to information law is adopted.

The timing of these declarations on a state secrets law is also very disappointing as national discussion and active campaigning for an access to information law has been on-going for more than a decade. Since 2001, NGOs working in the country have pushed for greater transparency and education of democratic rights that would in turn enhance the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

A solid draft law and an amended version were submitted to the National Assembly in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Both were rejected.

Despite these efforts to increase access to information, government officials in Cambodia often simply choose not to implement the few provisions related to freedom of information that currently exist in domestic law, for example under the 1995 Law on the Press or the 2005 Archives Law. This, paired with a politically subservient judiciary and restrictive police force, has prevented Cambodia from developing a strong freedom of information framework and from exercising full freedom of expression.

Democracy requires an informed citizenship and accountable leadership. For these goals to be realised, the public’s right to know must be protected and positively enforced through legislation and the active implementation of freedom of information principles.

Certain information may legitimately be secret on grounds of national security or protection of other overriding interests. However, abuses of power occur when a government is not open and accountable. The lack of access to sufficient and accurate information severely hinders the ability of journalists and civil society to provide information and encourage debate. Increasing public access to information through the adoption of a comprehensive access to information law will allow Cambodians to exercise their democratic right to participate in decision-making processes and to freedom of expression. It will also equip them with the necessary information to make informed decisions about issues that affect them, in turn increasing the transparency and accountability of those individuals and bodies that wield power in Cambodia.

A secrecy law should not be adopted until the right of access to information is solidly guaranteed in the country. When a stronger legislative infrastructure on the right to information has been developed in Cambodia, national security could be considered as a legitimate while specific exception to that right.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

A Cambodian’s Impressions of the 2012 Stockholm Internet Forum

Written by on . Published in News.

If you asked me what’s the biggest difference between Stockholm, the Swedish capital and Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia where I come from, I’d answer straight off without any hesitation: it’s the temperature! It’s now roughly 2 – 5 degrees Celsius in Stockholm – which is freezing for a Cambodian whose country in April is going through its hottest season with temperatures around 35 degrees.

It was extremely cold outside, yet  the atmosphere inside the  Stockholm Internet Forum which took place in the capital  from 18- 19 April was pretty hot! It was aimed  at deepening the debate among IT enthusiasts, business corporates, human rights and internet activists, and policymakers on how freedom and openness on the Internet promotes global development. Its focus was on freedom of expression on and off  the Net. There were many interesting sessions and side events which summarized  different sessions; live streaming recordings from the Forum can be viewed here.

Two main linkages received considerable discussion at the Forum. First, the linkage of  freedom of expression and the Internet to global development which was underscored by some participants who raised the issue of the  preconditions of the physical and political infrastructure before demands for freedom and access to the Internet were made. To kick off the conversation, the moderator of the first session cited what a young boy had said about why freedom of expression was important for him. A tweet gave the boy’s words:

“without freedom of expression” I can’t talk about who’s stealing my food” moderator @rmack intro #sif12 #fxinternet

His words go to show that poverty is not only a lack of water or food but also a lack of freedom and that therefore enjoyment of human rights is also a priority concern for human development. The milestone of technological development as a catalyst for development cooperation, however, should not be questioned as the notion has been already recognized and outlined in the Millennium Development Goal 8 which is to develop a global partnership for development.

The Swedish Government reaffirmed its committment to openness and internet access rights.  Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, posited two traditions with deep roots in his country.  Firstly, “the somewhat more recent leadership role in the Net transformation of our world, and secondly the longer one of protection of freedom of information which has made it natural to make all the issues concerning freedom of the Net one of the cornerstones of our foreign policy now; we urge all governments to  agree that freedom of the Internet is a RULE not an exception”.

The other important linkage  discussed was  business responsibility in supporting human rights. It seemed that Forum participants and panelists agreed that corporations have a duty to respect human rights and exercise due diligence. The ICT sector was identified as a “freedom provider” which means providing access to information, communication and new services which contribute to the practical enjoyment of associates’ rights as well as freedom of expression.

Failed or undemocratic governments also pose great challenges for the operating environment in many countries and an appeal was made to companies (IT/internet providers) to take their role as human rights defenders seriously by not crossing the red line of any direct act that could make others vulnerable “namely by give information about internet users to the government.”

The UN Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were strongly welcomed as these highlight the need for due diligence and place responsibility on states and corporations as regards protection and promotion of human rights. I particularly recall the comments of  Suneet Singh Tuli, President and CEO of Data Wind Ltd about: “ blocking social networking also means blocking prosperity on these markets,” – in which he said that it is evident that extensive closure of the Internet is a violation of human rights and intervention against global development.

When a government controls access to the Internet of its people, it also limits access of the global community.  Likewise,  Guy Berger, Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO  argued that “when a government is depriving its citizens’ access to the Internet the whole world is affected in that nobody gets access to those citizens’ stories and perspectives.” Hence, the duty of  human rights defenders and “freedom providers”  should be  to defend a free and open Internet.

To conclude,  the various heads of states  and human rights activists  at this Forum agreed that  freedom of the Internet cannot be seen as an isolated issue and has to be mainstreamed by governments. Moreover, freedom of expression on the Internet is an important human right. I see this as a very positive push in the direction  of creating global internet freedom. I  just  hope that the maximum number of governments can take a step in this direction and providing  freedom since at present there are far too many of them who censor the Internet for their citizens.

All photos of the Forum taken by Chak Sopheap

 

 

 

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