Once heralded as a force for democratisation, online media is often now used by authoritarian regimes around the world to serve their interests – a process that experts say appears underway in Cambodia.
Arguably the most influential force spreading pro-government news in the Kingdom is Fresh News, which has long denied any formal connection to the ruling party.
Throughout a crackdown on the ruling party’s political adversaries, the news site has been a reliable, and prescient, window into the actions and mindset of the government.
It was Fresh News that first published accusations against opposition leader Kem Sokha, who now languishes in prison on widely condemned charges of “treason” after his midnight arrest was live-streamed by the site.
In an anonymous editorial, the site also posted proposed amendments to election laws allowing the CNRP’s seats to be redistributed to minor parties in the event of its dissolution. Just two weeks later, very similar amendments were approved by the National Assembly and are currently awaiting the King’s signature.
Analysts agree that nominally independent or not, Fresh News should be considered an arm of Hun Sen’s increasingly autocratic government.
Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian regimes at Griffith University in Australia, believes the Hun Sen regime is in the process of moving from competitive authoritarianism – in which there is a facade of democracy and the odds are stacked against the opposition – to hegemonic authoritarianism, where there is no opposition whatsoever.
Morgenbesser previously defined hegemonic authoritarianism as “a regime where the incumbent legally bars opposition parties from existing . . . and monopolizes access to resources, media, and the law”.
A “key feature” of this brand of authoritarianism is state-controlled media.
As the ruling party targets civil society, independent media and the political opposition, Morgenbesser anticipates Fresh News’s role will evolve.
“Having proven itself a reliable ally to Hun Sen’s government, Fresh News’s transition from [a] nominally independent news organisation to a formal institution of the regime could occur rather seamlessly,” he said.
A 2014 article titled Breaking the News: The Role of State-Run Media by Robert Orttung at the Elliot School of International Affairs and Christopher Walker at the National Endowment for Democracy, outlines how authoritarian regimes use state media to “delegitimise” both political opposition and civil society. The description bears a resemblance to the symbiotic relationship between Fresh News and the government.
“An authoritarian regime that wants to convict a civil society leader of far-fetched criminal charges will often first ‘soften up the target’ by making that leader the subject of unfavourable media coverage,” the article explains.
During the weeks before the midnight arrest of Sokha, Fresh News ran numerous unsubstantiated articles alleging his “treasonous” acts – receiving advice from the United States while charting his political career.
Even hours before his arrest, the articles continued. One, published as an anonymous “analysis”, accused Sokha of wanting to “sell our sovereignty”.
“State-run media typically accuse oppositionists of wanting to cause chaos . . . Relatedly, regime critics may be painted as witting or unwitting tools of the West,” Orttung and Walker wrote, claiming this same ploy has been used in China, Russia, Zimbabwe and Azerbaijan.
According to Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, those strategies are “echoed in the Cambodian government’s recent crackdown”.
He added that Fresh News appeared to be able to tap directly into the government’s information flow.
“The policy orders flow downstream straight from Hun Sen through the Council of Ministers,” Strangio explained. Fresh News appears to have “a privileged perch in the information ecosystem of the Cambodian People’s Party”.
Calling the Fresh News articles a “glimpse into the decision-making process”, Strangio said the government appears to “see [Fresh News] as its digital communications arm”.
“Does anybody really believe there’s some op-ed writer presenting this policy off the top of his head?” Strangio asked, in reference to the election law amendments.
The Khmer-language version of Fresh News routinely features “opinion” pieces and “letters to the editor” where an anonymous writer typically echoes government stances, lashing out at the opposition and America.
One reader’s letter, published October 2, extended “condolences” to Americans killed during the Las Vegas mass shooting, while also mocking America for issuing a travel warning against Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made nearly identical comments in a speech three days later.
Calling Fresh News “a digital update to the old form of state media”, Strangio contrasted it with Cambodia’s official government newswire Agence Kampuchea Presse (AKP).
“Fresh News is AKP with some digital flourishes,” he said, describing the latter as “very dull, very dry, and very wooden”.
On a single day visitors to the site can find nearly every strategy laid out in Breaking the News: highlighting problems elsewhere as a warning against those who call for change; praising stability at home; criticising the US; and attacking opposition figures for undermining state security.
On October 18, for instance, Fresh News published a story about 20 deaths and 160 injuries from a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. Shortly after, they ran a story claiming “Singaporean investors enjoy peace and stability in Cambodia”.
Less than an hour later, a story declared “19 victims affected by US chemical bombs”, with another article featuring a quote from Hun Sen as its headline: Did US Think of Human Rights and Democracy When Bombing Cambodia?
Later that same day the site published a story about a “recent leak of new video . . . showing Sam Rainsy calling for armed forces to topple Cambodia’s government”. The video, now being used to accuse the former opposition leader of treason, was from 2011.
Reached yesterday, Fresh News CEO Lim Cheavutha doubled down on criticisms that reflect the site’s stance towards the West, claiming his media company is “a strong nationalist institution that helps protect the nation”.
Cheavutha did not deny being affiliated with the government, instead asking why The Post raised the question.
“Fresh News always publishes the peoples’ letters criticising the US for Cambodia’s debt and the bombing that killed innocent people,” he said.
“It is different from your media, which is afraid and does not dare to criticise foreigners. Is it true or not that your institution is owned by foreigners that do not care about Cambodia?” he asked.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he had no comment on the similarities between Fresh News and authoritarian state-controlled media.
He did, however, admit that the government has a special relationship with the outlet.
“They get information from the government. The government is comfortable to share that information with Fresh News,” he said, maintaining that the state “doesn’t pay them a dime”. Siphan went on to say that Fresh News is “a space for the government to share the news”.
Regional analyst Carl Thayer said that the parallels in academic research on state-controlled media to Fresh News were likely no accident.
“It’s quite plausible that they discuss this with China and even take assistance. They need to get training, advice, guidance, and mentorship,” Thayer said.
“I would weigh down heavily that [Fresh News] has been set up by the government under the appearance of independence in order to attack political opponents,” he said.