Cambodia’s Free Speech a COVID-19 Casualty

Prime Minister grabs sweeping new powers . . .

On Friday, the Cambodian National Assembly granted Prime Minister Hun Sen extensive state-of-emergency powers under the auspices of managing the country’s COVID-19 response. Although the number of reported cases in Cambodia is low – 122 as of April 14 – the World Health Organization said the situation there remains “very, very serious.” These new powers give Hun the authority to limit freedom of movement and assembly. They also allow him to exert almost unlimited surveillance over telecommunications and crack down even harder on the press and social media. Observers say the law’s breadth – and the fact that its provisions are vaguely worded – are an opportunistic power grab, furthering the country’s slide into autocracy.

Snuffing out scrutiny . . .

Even before the country's new emergency powers, there are already signs that the Cambodian government is using the crisis for political ends. Human Rights Watch noted that as of April 9, the government had arrested 23 people for allegedly spreading fake news about COVID-19. That includes eight people affiliated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017; a reporter who quoted the prime minister’s own words about the impact on taxi drivers; and, a 14-year-old girl who expressed fear of the virus on social media. The Prime Minister is especially sensitive to scrutiny after he was criticized for initially dismissing the threat and then welcoming a cruise ship that had been at sea for two weeks because some of passengers were suspected of being infected.

Sign of things to come?

Cambodia is by no means an isolated case of an autocratic-minded government exploiting the public’s fears and desire for decisive action. Democracy-watchers have raised alarms about similar moves in the Philippines and Thailand, and further afield in Hungary and Turkey. But the stranglehold on independent voices and analysis is especially worrying as the crisis deepens and its ripple effects start to bite. The World Bank projects that Cambodia’s GDP growth rate could drop from seven per cent in 2019 to one per cent this year, hurting the mainstays of the Cambodian economy, including tourism and the garment sector.