Authoritarian Tech

Cambodian prime minister unleashes social media crackdown to seal grip on country

New emergency laws allow unlimited surveillance and control of the press and social media

Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

Journalist Sun Narin recalls the day earlier this month when a colleague was singled out by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen during a press briefing. The reporter had asked a question about the nation’s new state of emergency law.

In addition to strict lockdown measures, the legislation contains sweeping provisions that allow the government to carry out unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and to control the press and social media. 

“I watched the press briefing from my office because I assigned her to go there,” said Sun Narin, who works for Voice of America. “Hun Sen asked her to swear that the questions did not come from ‘the people in DC,’ referring to the Voice of America team in DC.”

Others, who watched the conference live on Facebook felt intimidated. “I felt a little bit of fear,” said Sineat Yon, a freelance reporter. “It made me be more careful when I produced any articles and news. In the meantime, I feel threatened.”

As part of Cambodia’s ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices, dozens have been arrested for making social media posts about the coronavirus. According to the website VOD Hot News, police have detained more than 40 people since January for allegedly spreading “fake news” online.

Cambodia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the country’s slide toward authoritarianism. Since 2017, Hun Sen’s governing Cambodian People’s Party, which has strong links with China, has shuttered media outlets and prosecuted people for social media postings. Cambodia’s main opposition group Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

After the press briefing, Sovann Rithy, a journalist for the online news outlet TVFB, was arrested by police in Phnom Penh. He was detained after uploading a post on Facebook containing comments made by Hun Sen: “If motorbike taxi drivers go bankrupt because of the pandemic, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”  

National police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said a day later that the prime minister had been joking and that repeating his remarks would confuse the public. 

Surveillance of social media has also led to the arrest of members of the public — including supporters of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party and a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears on Facebook that three of her classmates had contracted Covid-19.

One of the most recent cases is the detention of petrol station worker Lek Siengly, who posted a live video that criticized the government for restricting the public from traveling and gathering. If found guilty, he faces a six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to $990.

With 122 cases and zero deaths, Cambodia has a relatively low confirmed incidence of coronavirus, but human rights experts are concerned that the actual numbers could be higher. 

“Hun Sen has been using the Covid-19 crisis in a political manner from the very beginning. He has continued to downplay the seriousness of Covid-19,” said deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson. “He wants to be seen as a leader who’s not scared of anything.” 

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a statement condemning Cambodian authorities for using the pandemic to extend the president’s powers and to clamp down on freedom of speech and the role of the press.

“I think the government watches us,” said Sun Narin. “They are concerned that people will have access to our websites and to the news that the government doesn’t like. I have to be careful driving home and leaving work, I have to be looking around.”

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Chaewon Chung

Chaewon is a multimedia journalist with Coda Story. She graduated with a Master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School and has also reported with SCMP, BUST, Korea Exposé, and others.