Beyond the Screen: Online Harassment of Cambodia’s Digital Youth Advocate

Beyond the Screen: Online Harassment of Cambodia’s Digital Youth Advocate

The World Wide Web was invented not to connect machines but to connect people. And just like its technological predecessors, it has evolved beyond its purpose. Today, people use it for mundane tasks that can vary from communicating, purchasing and entertainment to groundbreaking ones like political lobbying and advocacy promotion.

Thanks to the internet, gone are the days that awareness raising on socio-political and economic issues can only be done by being physically present in the streets with financial costs associated with   paraphernalia distribution. Because the internet made it possible for movements to distribute information on a cheaper or sometimes at zero cost and reach audiences faster and wider. Gone are the times that only traditional media largely influence the mindset of the masses but the masses themselves now influence traditional media by voicing out their concerns through social media. 

The accessibility, user friendly and affordability of the internet is taken advantage by people from all walks of life to speak out and let their voices be heard. Amongst this sea of people are the youth whose practical grasp of technology made their whispers echoed throughout digital platforms and onto the physical world. 

Cambodia is no exception to such phenomenon. The increase of availability of smartphones and extensive mobile networks which offer affordable internet increased internet penetration from 320, 000 users in 2010i  to almost 8 million in 2017 with 6.3 million Facebook subscribers wherein 2.1 million are 18-24 years old.ii   Belonging to this demographic is Catherine Harry, a youth who believes that social media is a very effective tool for advocacy and activism and a vlogger known for  the blog,  “A dose of Cath” which contains discussion on feminism, women’s sexuality and reproductive rights.

“Young people are on social media, and for them, it's their main channel of communication. Targeting social media is an efficient way to spread the message to them. It's also easy to measure the results and impacts of the campaign through the engagement and feedback from the audience, thanks to the tools that are available on those platforms.” 

However, despite the good intention to educate the public and create a peaceful space to discuss issues of Cambodian women online, not all are pleased or open. In some cases, people go to extreme measures in showing their disapproval to Cath’s advocacy. 

“I have been online harassed countless of times. It's not only because I'm outspoken, but also because I'm a woman. I believe that many women have similar experience online simply because they are women. I have received harassment messages as well as unsolicited genital pictures and pornography.”

These encounters are reality to youths facing online harassment which takes various forms such as unwanted sexually explicit emails, inappropriate or offensive advances on social media, sending of threats of physical/sexual violence, hate speeches where individuals are insulted based on their identity or traitsiii. Research shows that cyberbullying impacts the emotional wellbeing of the victims where areas they experience lack of acceptance in the peer groups which results in loneliness and social isolation leading to low self-esteem and depressioniv  and unlike traditional bullying which usually happens at schools or offices, online harassment can exist even at home, as long as there is internet/digital connectivity.

On the bright side, there are ways to protect oneself from cyberbullying by simply making the most of privacy settings, thinking about the consequences before posting and keeping personal information personalv .  Other steps include non-retaliation to the harassers, saving the evidence of bullying, telling the harasser to stop, utilize technology to cut off bullying or tools and reaching out for helpvi. But, these steps are not guaranteed to totally eliminate the risk of being harassed online.

“It's incredibly hard to report the instances to the authorities because they simply would not understand. Most authorities are men, and they don't understand what it's like to be a woman on social media. They barely handle cases where women (and sometimes men and queer people) experience in person, let alone something online.”

There is no existing Cyber law in Cambodia, only a draft that was leaked in 2014 which “threatens to criminalize poorly-defined categories of online expression under a committee led by the prime minister.vii The lack of rule of law leaves authorities having no legal basis to arrest harassers nor making cyberbullies legally accountable for their actions. Thus, Cambodia youth are vulnerable to cyber bullies which can discourage them from spreading their advocacy online.

But despite the lack of protection from the law, Catherine still encourages the youth to speak out for what they believe in by utilizing new media.

“Bullying happens, and there is absolutely no way to justify that. They will encounter bullies and trolls online, but they should not let that hinder their activism. It's going to be hard, but they should also look out for their emotional well-being.”

Not only individuals like Catherine are on the move on speaking out online. Civil society organizations are also there to fulfill the gaps that the Cambodian government is lacking. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ “Digital Rights Project” aims to educate internet users about their digital rights and enhance online security wherein youth are specifically targeted because they are the majority of internet users and are most vulnerable to intimidation and threatsviii.

As for the online harassers, Catherine notes that they should understand that it's never acceptable to harass anyone because it's never just for fun and jokes if the other person is not laughing about it. “They should take some time to reconsider their actions and maybe work on their own lives rather than making someone else's life difficult.”

Authorities, victims and online harassers are not the only ones who are obligated to combat online harassment. It is also the responsibility of the people surrounding them. 

“We should all speak up whenever we see someone being bullied, be it in real life or online. Call those bullies or trolls out on it. It's never okay to harm someone's emotional well-being, spread hate message, or threaten someone.”

Although online harassment is not a major concern amongst Cambodian Youth, it does not mean that it is not happening and it is not an excuse to turn deaf ear towards the issue.   Catherine believes that the youth has a responsibility in educating people about online harassment and should work together in addressing the problem. “Call out the harassers and make sure that everyone knows that it's never okay to harass someone. The more we speak out about it, the more aware we are of the issue. Never normalize or justify the issue.”

In a country where the law guarantees freedom of expression to its citizens, this right should not be abused through unethically expressing hatred or disagreement towards other people’s beliefs, online or offline. There will always be a line that will be crossed if people are not aware of issues and consequences that certain actions may bring.  Therefore, more digital advocates like Catherine are needed to educate and inspire not only the youth but Khmer society as a whole by speaking out their desires for social change and combating online harassment morally as they continue to thrive.

Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense on Human Rights (May 2015) Going offline? The threat to Cambodia’s new found freedom
ii Internet World Stats accessed on August 29, 2018 retrieved from:
iii Thesaurus on Cyber Harassment accessed on August 29, 2018 retrieved from:
iv Cowie, H. (May 2014) Cyberbullying and its impact on young people’s emotional health and wellbeing University of Surrey, p. 1-6
End Cyberbullying (n.d.) what can you do to prevent cyberbullying? accessed on August 29, 2018 retrieved from:
vi Law Rato (October 2016) Everything you need to know about cyberbullying and how to stop it retrieved from:
vii Freedom House (n.d.) on Cambodia accessed on August 29, 2018 retrieved from:
viii Cambodian Center for Human Rights (n.d.) Digital rights project accessed on August 29, 2018 retrieved from: