Cambodia has expanded government monitoring of social media to include apps like TikTok, WhatsApp and Telegram in a bid to target fake news. Though intended in part to combat misinformation about COVID-19, the announcement has raised concerns about a new wave of censorship of independent media and political opposition in the country.
By Umair Jamal
Cambodia’s Information Ministry is expanding its monitoring of social media to messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, as well as TikTok. The government has said that it made the decision out of concern about fake news regarding COVID-19.
Human rights groups warn that the government’s attempt to tackle fake news is yet another thinly veiled attack on independent media and freedom of speech in the country. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government appears to be using the threat of false information about the COVID-19 pandemic to carry out arrests of political opponents and journalists critical of the government.
The government has stepped up action against fake news amid COVID-19
Cambodia’s Information Ministry has decided to expand its monitoring of social media apps to include messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger and also TikTok. Previously, the government had mostly targeted social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the name of tackling fake news.
Phos Sovann, the Information Ministry’s director-general of information and broadcasting, has said the added platforms are being used to spread fake news regarding COVID-19 vaccination. But the reasoning behind the new measures goes beyond COVID-19.
“We have observed that TikTok has been used by some people in the wrong way. Before, it was just an application that our younger generation used for playing games and having fun, but now we have seen some people are distorting messages from leaders to sow discontent,” Phos told Khmer Times.
According to Sovann, in 2020, the government found roughly 1,343 cases of fake news, incitement and insults on social media platforms, mainly Facebook. The government took action against 200 Facebook accounts that were allegedly sharing fake news and inciting violence. Some of the accounts were reported to the national police while others were reported directly to Facebook and to the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications for removal.
In September last year, a government committee report found around 145 messages and videos sharing fake news and insults against the country’s senior leadership, including 22 cases of disinformation about Cambodia-Vietnam border issues.
In addition to targeting fake news, there are concerns that the government is using the renewed monitoring campaign to push another wave of censorship in Cambodia.
Government monitoring itself should be a cause for concern
Since 2017, Hun Sen has clamped down harshly on independent media in the country. His government forced the shutdown of the Cambodia Daily, a major independent newspaper, and silenced 32 FM radio frequencies that aired independent news programs. In 2018, Cambodia announced that all domestic and international internet traffic would pass through the state-owned data management center. The government is still developing this “national internet gateway”, which critics say will operate much like China’s firewall.
Journalists in the country say the government will intensify crackdowns on independent press. “We demand that [the government]… consider freedom of expression or freedom to make constructive comments as a basis for national development, rather than banning the use of social media to spread constructive ideas beneficial to social development,” said Nob Vy, the executive director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance.
Cambodian authorities may also use the situation to carry out arbitrary arrests. So far, Cambodian authorities have arrested at least 30 people since the outbreak of the pandemic, including 12 from the disbanded Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of spreading fake news.
For instance, in a speech last year, Hun Sen threatened to arrest Long Phary, a CNRP member, for a private phone call in which he criticized the government. A week after Hun Sen’s speech, police arrested Phary.
On April 7 last year, journalist Sovann Rithy was arrested by the Phnom Penh police for quoting a speech by Hun Sen about COVID-19.
Rithy, director of the TVFB news site, quoted Hun Sen’s remarks on his personal Facebook page: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”
Authorities said that Rithy used Hun Sen’s words in a condescending manner. On April 9, a judge charged the journalist with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of the criminal code and ordered his arrest. The Information Ministry also cancelled the license of TVFB, citing Rithy’s alleged spread of information “to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”
By expanding its monitoring to include WhatsApp, Telegram, Tik Tok and other apps, the government may be making a final push to silence any remaining independent media in the country and further sideline the political opposition in what is already essentially a one-party state. By adding more widely used social mediaplatforms to its monitoring list, the government is threatening people’s privacy at all levels. The push is an indication that Hun Sen’s government wants total control over all forms of dissent in the country, even if it involves quoting the Prime Minister’s own words.