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Hun Sen's Cambodia

Facebook now 'crucial' news source in run-up to Cambodia election

Hun Sen government extends media crackdown to social networks

More and more Cambodians are shunning pro-government TV channels in favor of social networks as a source of news.   © Reuters

PHNOM PENH -- The Cambodian government is taking no chances on being challenged at the polls this month, having extended its media crackdown to social networks.

Facebook has emerged as a vital news source with almost all independent media outlets now banned or obstructed. But the government announced last week that it would take action against websites and social media users that post "fake news."

Anyone caught propagating information deemed false could be jailed for up to two years and face fines of up to $1,000, local media reported.

This came just two days after Prime Minister Hun Sen had warned that the government was capable of locating the whereabouts of Facebook users within minutes.

"Please, police and intelligence [officers], reveal all the technology we have to catch Facebook posters," he told reporters during the inauguration ceremony for a new overpass in Phnom Penh.

"It doesn't take much time, only six minutes ... No need to send police from Phnom Penh [to you]. We have the force there," he said.

The country's independent media outlets have been decimated by a government crackdown that was ramped up last year. The situation has prompted people to get their news elsewhere as they tire of pro-government TV news channels.

"Young people don't like [to watch TV]," said the owner of a motorbike rental shop in Siem Reap. The news on TV "is not real" and spun to make the government look good, he added.

hun Facebook Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that the authorities are capable of locating the whereabouts of Facebook users within minutes.   © Reuters

"Facebook is crucial right now in its role as a platform for people to voice their opinions," said Catherine V. Harry, whose popular video blog "A Dose of Cath" tackles topics related to women's health and sexuality.

"With the obliteration of independent media, people have little choice but to move to social media to get their information," she added. "Thanks to social media, I am able to express my opinions without worrying much about permission from the government."

The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia and dozens of independent radio stations that aired RFA and Voice of America content were closed down last year for reasons many consider to be politically motivated. The Phnom Penh Post was sold to the owner of a Malaysian public relations company that lists Hun Sen's administration as a former client.

The number of Cambodians arrested for allegedly seditious activity has increased in recent years, while a new lese majeste law that came into effect recently aims to suppress criticism of the monarchy.

Many people have been arrested on questionable charges. One man was detained for allegedly blaming the royal family for the "loss of Khmer land." Another was held for calling the government authoritarian and a woman was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing her sandal at a ruling party billboard.

Facebook's importance has increased since the crackdown began, according to political blogger Noan Sereiboth.

"While users cannot access independent media like before, Facebook is becoming a more important source of information," he said, while acknowledging that not all of it was accurate.

However, the government measures were also now being felt by the country's almost 7 million internet users, Sereiboth said.

"It makes some users vulnerable and fearful of expressing, discussing and sharing," he said. "Users are self-censoring more and are more careful about what they write on Facebook, or what they should not," he added.

Cambodia's mobile phone market has undergone unprecedented growth in recent years and around half the population has a smartphone. Moreover, 6.8 million people use Facebook. That is roughly two out of five Cambodians, and double the number in 2016, according to data compiled by news blog Geeks in Cambodia.

The influence that can be wielded through the social network became apparent in 2013, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party -- dissolved by the Supreme Court last year over accusations of plotting a Washington-backed coup -- mobilized daily rallies with thousands of supporters in the lead-up to the general election.

The vote saw the opposition come within seven seats of victory after winning 44% of the popular vote, and made it clear to the government that elections could not be won with handouts of rice and scarves to villagers alone.

Before 2013, the government had a very limited social media presence, while the opposition had fine-tuned its use of social networks to spread its message.

"Users are self-censoring more and are more careful about what they write on Facebook, or what they should not, to avoid legal action"

Political blogger Noan Sereiboth

The government has since made considerable efforts to catch up.

Hun Sen's personal Facebook page, which he initially denied was his, now boasts more than 10 million likes. However, the vast majority come from overseas, largely from countries that are well-known for click farms -- companies that sell fake social media popularity.

In February, lawyers for exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy filed a petition in the Northern District of California asking that Facebook be compelled to release records of advertising purchases by Hun Sen and his allies, The New York Times reported.

Rainsy has accused his longtime rival of spreading false news and death threats, and the petition cites leaked emails reportedly showing that at one point the CPP was paying Facebook $15,000 per day to promote its pages.

The election will show how much sway exiled opposition supporters still have on Facebook, said Sebastian Strangio, author of "Hun Sen's Cambodia."

Some have backed an online "clean finger" campaign -- voters have their forefingers marked with indelible ink to prevent electoral fraud -- urging Cambodians to boycott the July 29 ballot.

"That will be a very good indication of how far the opposition's message continues to spread," he said.

Despite the threat Facebook poses to Hun Sen's leadership, banning it like the Chinese government has would be difficult, and not necessarily effective. Rooting out the most outspoken users and creating a climate of fear, on the other hand, means "people second guess themselves before posting critical comments," said Strangio.

The government itself would have much to lose through a ban, said Harry. "They are also using Facebook to their own advantage."

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