The sexually explicit photos were plastered over Venerable Luon Sovath’s Facebook page, with its more than 100,000 followers. “The monk lacks morals,” one of the messages read. On the same day, his YouTube channel was also hacked, along with his personal email.

Sovath doesn’t know who was behind the attack and about five others that have targeted his pages. But he is the most well-known of Cambodia’s tech-capable monks, who have become citizen journalists, videoing stories throughout Cambodia and sharing them on social media.

“I am publishing the truth, not fake news,” the saffron-robed monk said of his work which has focused in recent years on evictions of poor people from their land, deforestation, the right to protest, and free elections, that have pitted him against Cambodia’s authorities.

“I know in my heart that what we are doing is right. Not only because it’s humane to help poor people, but because it’s my obligation as a monk. Buddha is the symbol of peace, justice and happiness,” he said, seated in the middle of a small, deserted pagoda in Phnom Penh.

Scores of Cambodia’s monks have taken to social media in recent years to shine a spotlight on a string of social and political issues. Some have marched alongside street protesters, using their smartphones to livestream and document any police brutality. A group called the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice has tackled deforestation, posting images and videos of illegal logging. Their work has been popular on Facebook and YouTube, drawing -tens of thousands of followers and likes. The government’s violent response to dissent has discouraged many monks. But a more recent clampdown on criticism online has been especially foreboding, forcing them to censor their work or risk prison.

Prime Minister Hun Sen won a landslide victory last July, extending his more than three-decade grip on power. Western governments have criticized the result and the White House press office released a statement calling the elections “neither free nor fair”. Human Rights Watch called it a “mockery of democracy”.

Hun Sen’s government has largely ignored the reaction and continues to hold a tight grip on critical comment, including on the internet. A government unit set up last year to halt sedition and the spread of false information has seen dozens of people arrested or detained for posting online. One man was arrested for calling the Cambodian government “authoritarian” in a video clip posted to Facebook. The government says the unit is required to maintain order and stability, but rights activists say it’s being used to stifle dissent.

“There is absolutely no more tolerance left for individuals, institutions or groups that criticize the government, and raise questions about the government. That’s the bottom line,” said Naly Pilorge, head of the LICADHO human rights group, which has a long record of reporting on politically sensitive issues like land seizures.

Political Monks

A key political cause for Cambodia’s activist monks is land grabs and forced evictions, a major problem. Thousands of families have been driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects. About 770,000 Cambodians—more than six percent of the population—were affected by conflicts over land between 2000 and 2014, according to charges presented by human rights lawyers at the International Criminal Court.

Some of Cambodia’s 50,000 monks have long campaigned on this issue. But they were spurred on more recently by political protests. Angry Cambodians took to the streets for months after Hun Sen’s party won a majority in 2013 parliamentary elections, despite claims of electoral fraud. Monks championed a range of causes as their followers grew. They forged ahead even after some of them were arrested by police at protests and denounced as fake monks by officials.

Even Cambodia’s Buddhist supreme patriarch, head of the country’s largest Buddhist sect and a backer of Hun Sen, has called on pagodas to refuse them shelter, while some have been threatened with expulsion from their orders. Already in a precarious situation, the monks have been left reeling by the latest danger: the threat of criminal charges for posting online.

“It’s very dangerous at the moment,” Sovath, who was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2012 and has been barred from pagodas, said of his concern of facing charges of defamation, inciting instability or other crimes that carry jail terms.

Monks are widely respected in overwhelmingly Buddhist Cambodia. In a country with decreasing but still high levels of poverty and corruption, some monks see activism as an extension of their duty to help the most vulnerable. A recent academic paper that studied activist monks between 2014 and 2016 says their status as religious leaders gives their causes wider support than those of lay leaders, and their involvement gives the issues greater legitimacy. Their savvy use of social media means they quickly and easily reach thousands of Cambodians, who use Facebook as a major source of news.

“A lot of media are not independent, there are lots of TV stations but we cannot rely on them,” Venerable Prim Houn, another activist monk, said of pro-government stations. “We need clear evidence to show what’s going on, to show the truth.”

Houn grew up in northern Cambodia where he says he saw villagers lose their land and the forests on which they relied for food. In 2013, he started making simple videos with his smartphone as a way of capturing injustice. Slowly, after receiving training from an NGO, he began attending protests and uploading more sophisticated video clips on issues as varied as illegal logging and garment workers’ demands for better wages.

“I haven’t broken any Buddhism rules. People need justice and equality and if they are not getting these things then monks need to help,” said Houn, outside his simple quarters at a major pagoda in Phnom Penh. “But there’s a lot of pressure now, we have to be careful,” he said, adding that his posts no longer directly contradict or criticize authorities. Instead, they are more subtle, emphasizing Buddha’s teachings on protecting the environment and helping the poor.

Hun Sen has warned that police and intelligence officers can track down a Facebook user in six minutes. Although the claim has not been supported by technical evidence, the threat of constant online surveillance and any number of criminal charges for posting contentious content is a deterrent for many.

Hun Sen recently announced he is pushing ahead with a new law to protect against cyber crimes such as hacking that reportedly also includes provisions for spreading false information. Civic and media rights leaders say they have not seen the latest version, but a previous draft that was leaked sparked alarm about its vague, sweeping language that could allow for broad interpretation of outlawed content.

“We had concerns with a previous draft, which could be misused to control freedom of expression,” said Nop Vy, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. If implemented, it would become the latest in a new wave of laws in Southeast Asian countries that give governments more control over the internet, including one that Thailand passed in February.

Hun Sen reportedly defended his plans to officials and journalists at an event in January, saying critics should not “misinterpret” the law to accuse the country of becoming a dictatorship. A government spokesman was reported in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper saying: “Cambodia didn’t just take (the law) out of the jungle. We studied similar laws in the US, Britain and other countries because we are open. We are not a dictatorship or a communist country.”

Turning to China

In the shadow of one of Phnom Penh’s biggest pagodas, among parked motorbikes and orange robes drying in the sun, Venerable Bor Bet outlines his latest plan to raise awareness of illegal logging. With video cameras and smartphones, about a dozen monks plan to patrol on foot through the majestic Prey Lang forest, one of the largest in Southeast Asia and long targeted by rogue loggers. Any evidence they find of illegal logging will be filmed and uploaded to Facebook.

Bet fears arrest by local authorities who might be working with the loggers. He worries about expulsion from his order and the possibility of criminal charges over the content he posts online. “But we must push ahead. We keep on seeing these injustices but there is little action,” said Bet, who has been detained by police in the past and fears authorities still spy on his movements.

Bet became a de-facto head of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice after its founder was forced to flee into exile in the United States last year. Venerable But Buntenh, a government critic, was charged with fraud alongside two other civil society leaders, charges he denies. Bet said membership peaked at 5,000 in 2013 when the network was formed, but has fallen under the government’s crackdown.

The government says it is working to resolve land grabbing issues and it takes illegal logging seriously. Monks, it says, should refrain from activism and concentrate on playing an important spiritual role in Cambodian society. “They should not become involved in politics and they should respect the rule of law,” said Phay Siphan, a government spokesman.

“They should not succumb to foreigners who want to hire them to destabilize the government of Cambodia,” he added, apparently referring to Western governments.

For 25 years, Cambodia relied on billions of dollars in aid from US and European governments to rebuild and rehabilitate a country scarred and reeling from the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. The financial assistance was meant to transform Cambodia into a liberal democracy, but Hun Sen has instead tightened his grip on the levers of power and alienated his Western allies.

He drew closer to China, whose hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure loans and other forms of financing come with fewer strings attached. China, which poured $5.3bn into the country between 2013 and 2017 is the largest foreign investor in Cambodia. In return, Beijing can count Cambodia as a strong political ally, ready to support China in regional disputes like its expansive plans in the South China Sea.

Given that any upheaval could impact the close economic relationship between Cambodia and China, Beijing may have been trying to monitor and gain valuable insights into Cambodia’s election last year, according to US cybersecurity firm FireEye. In the weeks before the poll, FireEye linked a Chinese cyber espionage group to a large spike in phishing messages and hacking attempts of Cambodian rights groups, media and government ministries. FireEye said its evidence showed the Chinese hacking-group TEMP.Periscope was behind the operation and was almost certainly working on behalf of the Chinese government. Rights groups expressed concern about the security of their client databases and other sensitive information.

China meanwhile has recently been exporting its internet policy to emerging countries, an annual report from democracy watchdog Freedom House says. Cambodia and China, which tightly monitors its online content, signed a deal last year to share knowledge on combating cybercrime. Russia also reportedly agreed last year to train Cambodian police in fighting terrorism and cybercrime.  

Pilorge, whose group LICADHO was among those caught up in the phishing emails, said she feared free speech in Cambodia would continue to diminish. With control of the legislature, and influence over the judiciary, Hun Sen’s government lacked checks and balances. Together with China’s strong backing, the government could continue to tighten its grip.

However, she and other civic leaders also hold out hope that Cambodia’s huge young demographic (65 percent are aged 30 or younger) might push for greater freedoms. Hun Sen might also back down in the face of economic pressure from the US and the EU, which is mulling a withdrawal of trade privileges for Cambodia over its erosion of rights.

Luon Sovath, too, is optimistic. “We are Buddhists so we are hopeful. We hope that democracy is still alive in the hearts of the people.”