On July 17, Choung Choungy posted a video to Facebook ahead of Cambodia’s elections this Sunday. A lawyer who has represented many of Cambodia’s opposition officials, Choungy wanted to make clear to his followers that the country’s constitution enshrines a right to free speech, and that those using social media to boycott the election were not breaking any laws.
A week later, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) filed a complaint with the National Election Commission claiming his comments constituted fake news, and requesting Choungy’s Facebook page be shut down immediately. Cambodia’s Justice Department piled on, announcing that it was pursuing legal action against Choungy. If found guilty, he could end up in jail for two years.
Choungy’s experience may be an outrage, but in Cambodia it’s no longer unique. Politicians and activists inside Cambodia described to VICE News a culture of fear and paranoia among citizens when it comes to speaking their mind online. Many said they were afraid of losing their jobs, being fined, or being jailed for comments that in most other countries would barely register as controversial.
“There has been a significant increase of self-censorship on the part of Cambodian citizens resulting from the increase of government surveillance and the rise of criminal prosecutions for online activities,” Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told VICE News.
Hun Sen will be re-elected as Cambodia’s prime minister on Sunday. He will win unopposed, after banning the main opposition party, jailing its leader, and muzzling the independent press. But as voters head to the polls, he's taking his crackdown a step further by choking off the country's last primary platform for dissent: Facebook.
In May, Hun Sen ordered officials to create a special police unit to monitor Facebook for anti-government sentiment, and earlier this month, the government published a new directive nominally designed to curb “fake news.” Critics claim the directive allows the police to fine or jail anyone posting content on social media that is critical of the Cambodian leader.
Along with Choungy’s case, the new laws have seen student activist Kung Raiya threatened with jail for publicizing his intention to boycott the vote on Facebook, and five former opposition lawmakers fined for posting pictures they took at a party. (The CPP, Hun Sen’s office, and the National Election Commission all failed to respond to requests for comment on the issues discussed in this piece.)
Hun Sen’s focus on Facebook is just one part of his years-long effort to consolidate power after 33 years atop Cambodia’s political system.
Last year, he jailed his main political opponent, Kem Sokha, on dubious charges of “treason,” and banned another 118 politicians, on charges they were plotting to overthrow his government with the help of the U.S. Cambodia’s highest court helped further consolidate his power when it dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017.
With his political opponents silenced, Hun Sen then turned his attention to the country’s independent media. He forced the Cambodia Daily newspaper to shut down in 2017, and in May he supported the sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian businessman with whom he had business ties. For many, these two events signaled the end of an independent media in Cambodia.
Now activists worry his new laws targeting Facebook will kill free speech and dissent altogether.
“Please, police and intelligence [officers], reveal all the technology we have to catch Facebook posters,” Hun Sen told reporters last week. He added that the government had the ability to locate any Facebook user it wanted. “It doesn't take much time, only six minutes [to find you]. No need to send police from Phnom Penh; we have the force there.”
Though such claims haven’t been supported by technical evidence, the mere suggestion that the government can track you down so quickly was enough to incite fear and panic among Cambodia’s citizenry, said Raman Jit Singh Chima, a policy director at human rights charity Access Now.
“You don't need to censor or block everybody all the time, but you need to make them believe that you may be able to do so, and that will cause the vast majority of people to self-censor and be cautious,” Jit Singh Chima told VICE News.
Facebook declined to comment for this story. But activists say the company must publicly rebuke such claims if it's going to have an impact. Otherwise they risk giving the Hun Sen’s of the world credibility.
“When the tech platform concerned doesn't respond publicly, saying ‘no, that is not the case’, you are left with the situation where the general public at least doubts, if not believes, that this might happen,” Jit Singh Chima said.
Facebook has struggled to offer a coherent vision for how to deal with authoritarian regimes across the globe, including governments in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy says that lack of clarity is only emboldening authoritarian governments.
“Facebook often has behaved indifferently to how dictators like Hun Sen misuse its platform,” Rainsy, co-founder of the CNRP, who is currently living in exile in France, told VICE News. “When those violations and misuse are reported, including with specific evidence of abuse, the social media giant refuses to take action.”
Rainsy and his exiled colleagues are urging people to protest in any way they can.
In Cambodia, voters receive indelible ink on their fingers when they cast their ballot, and so Rainsy’s campaign is designed to let people boycott the vote without explicitly saying so. He calls it his “clean finger” campaign.
But even the act of posting a picture of a clean index finger on Facebook has not escaped Hun Sen’s wrath. On Thursday five banned CNRP members were each fined $2,500 for doing it.
“For people inside Cambodia, when they voice an opinion now, even on Facebook, they are afraid because they don't know if it is their turn to get arrested,” said Kem Samathida, the daughter of the jailed CNRP leader.
Cover image: President of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen weaves to his supporters during campaign on final day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Samrang Pring