Cambodia's “Digital Security Champions” - Protectors of Freedom of Speech on the Internet

The internet has become a vital part of public life all around the globe. It offers a space for diversity of opinions and the exchange of information. However, not every government provides unrestricted internet access to their citizens and particularly the voicing of political opinions can get met with censorship and surveillance. Cambodia is one of those cases: Means to communicate about the state of human rights are very limited in the Southeast Asian state. Cambodia's government heavily controls the traditional media and intimidates critical voices. Especially media representatives, citizen journalists and human rights activists are being targeted by the authorities and suffer from harassment and prosecution. The digital rights in Cambodia have come under fire over the course of the last years. Political activists and even ordinary citizens are being persecuted and incarcerated because they voiced their political opinions online. According to the “Cambodia Fundamental Freedoms Monitor”, the Cambodian government has violated the right to freedom of speech a total of 40 times in 2017 and 2018. Among other things this practice leads to a culture of self-censorship. On top of that, many users lack important skills in order to securely use the internet. While ways exist to circumvent state censorship on the internet that allow to exercise the right to free speech, the necessary applications and methods need to be learned and mastered.

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Specialists for online Privacy Protection

The program “Realising human rights including children and youth rights in development cooperation” promotes empowerment and equal opportunities of groups that are marginalized and discriminated against. It works on implementing the Social Development Goals principle of “Leave no one behind”. In practice, the project supports the development and testing of innovative approaches in fields that are vital for the future. One of these vital fields is the protection of human rights on the internet. Under the name “Digital Securities Champion”, the project promotes an endeavor operated by the human rights organization Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). The organization opened a training center, the Sithi Hub, where participants take classes to learn how to professionally and securely utilize social media and digital tools. At the center, defenders of human rights and representatives of civil society organizations are being trained to become “Digital Security Champions”. Their awareness for the risks of the internet increases and they learn how to take the precautions necessary in order to continue with their work in the face of surveillance. This strengthens the right to free speech and the access to information in the digital space becomes more secure.

“Thanks to the training in digital security I learned how to navigate Facebook more safely and how to use alternatives to WhatsApp like Signal and Wire for secure communication”, Um Dina explains. She is secretary general of the Cambodian union for textile workers and finished the training to be a Digital Security Champion. She especially stresses her role as a multiplier for the skills she acquired: “I have shared my experiences with my peers and hope that the activities continue in the future.” Um Dina is one of 30 Champions in total that have been trained so far and are now ready to share their knowledge with colleagues and friends.


The Digital Security Champions – A Model for the Future

The course units with the first 30 participants were used as a basis for developing online coaching formats that the participants can now continue to take advantage of. Equipped with these tools, the Digital Security Champions turn into digital security coaches themselves and share their knowledge with human rights organizations and other activists in the country. CCHR also utilizes the training center that was established during the pilot phase for the advanced education of human rights defenders and grassroots organizations in the field of digital expertise and security. The approach to strengthen the digital security of vulnerable groups could be applied in all contexts where online surveillance, internet censorship and internet shutdowns restrict independent reporting, accountability, freedom of speech and the access to information. Therefore, it shows great potential not only in Cambodia. The courses on digital security that have been developed there could also be used in other Southeast Asian states and eventually also in other parts of the world in order to protect the human right to freedom of speech on the internet.

Sector: Governance
Region: Cambodia
Technology: Overarching: social media / platforms / encryption technologies (Signal, ProtonMail, Tutanota) / crowd sourcing tools (i.e. to measure and visualize internet shutdowns) / smartphones etc.
Project status: completed