Cambodian Government Using Fake News Law To Silence Critics And Coronavirus Reporting

from the redefining-speech-protections-to-protect-the-gov't-against-speech dept

In 2018, Cambodia's government passed a "fake news" law. It was enacted shortly before a general election, allowing the government to stifle criticism of the Prime Minister. It also required all local websites to register with the government and put government employees to work scouring social media for violations.

The government's new power to decide what is or isn't "real" news allowed it to consolidate its power over the local press. One newspaper was sold to a Malaysian firm that also performed PR work for the Prime Minister, giving the PM the ability to produce news unlikely to ever be classified as "fake."

The appearance of the coronavirus in Cambodia has resulted in a spike in "fake news" arrests. A crisis like this shouldn't be allowed to go to waste and the Cambodian government is making the most of its new powers to silence critics, stifle dissent, and punish anyone who doesn't have nice things to say about the party in power.

Human Rights Watch documented 30 arbitrary arrests between late January and April 2020. Fourteen people remain in pretrial detention, apparently on baseless charges, including incitement, conspiracy, incitement of military personnel to disobedience, and spreading false information or “fake news.” Among those arrested in addition to the opposition activists was a journalist quoting a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and ordinary Cambodians who criticized the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities released two on bail, one of whom was hospitalized. Their charges remain pending.

Part of this effort is apparently meant to deter citizens from reporting accurately about the spread of infection. Cambodia reported 122 positive cases but also claims there have been no new positive COVID-19 tests in the past 16 days. It appears the government wants its citizens -- and perhaps the rest of the world -- to believe the threat has passed, or is, at least, firmly under control. Many of those arrested were accused of posting "fake news" about COVID-19 to social media.

Even directly quoting the Prime Minister appears to be a crime under this law, as well as the new powers the government handed to itself by declaring a state of emergency.

On April 7, Phnom Penh police arrested an online journalist, Sovann Rithy, for allegedly “stirring chaos by quoting from a Hun Sen speech: “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.” The authorities charged Rithy with “incitement to commit a felony” and ordered his detention at Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciare detention facility. The Information Ministry revoked the license for his online broadcasting site, TVFB, on grounds that Rithy had broadcast information “to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”

This is the way "fake news" laws are used. Very rarely do these laws target anyone spreading false information. They're almost always used to silence criticism and allow governments to control the narrative. The President of the United States popularized the term "fake news," and almost every single use of the term by Trump refers to press coverage or press outlets he doesn't personally like. It has nothing to do with the accuracy of their reporting. The same goes elsewhere in the world, but the idea to treat "fake news" as a crime, rather than protected expression, is a lot easier to enact in countries where free speech protections are more minimal. And once these laws are enacted, they'll be in place forever.

Filed Under: cambodia, covid-19, fake news, free speech, politics


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 May 2020 @ 1:32pm

    The "fake news" wasn't coined by the US. The gov of Cambodia appears to be correct that large parts of the coverage of it are misleading enough to be fake even if it's all mostly true at some level.


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