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In a digital age, government turns to Telegram for communication

Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen using a smartphone in 2013, has made active use of smartphones a requirement for government officials.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, seen using a smartphone in 2013, has made active use of smartphones a requirement for government officials. AFP

In a digital age, government turns to Telegram for communication

So much of the government’s internal communications are now conducted over chats on messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp that Prime Minister Hun Sen last week announced that active use of smartphones was now required for a government job.

“I place the condition: If you don’t know how [to use the apps], I will not appoint you, because you won’t be integrated with everyone else,” he said in an August 1 speech. “If you don’t know such things, we don’t need to appoint you, as you can’t be in the groups.”

For those who refuse to take part in the group chats, the prime minister explained, the solution was simple: They would be removed, and cut out from the communications completely – a fate, he said, that had ironically befallen Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.

“When I send to the government group, I never see that Kanharith has ‘seen’ it. So I cut him out – he’s not in the group. He’s the minister of information, but he doesn’t read the information,” Hun Sen said, adding that he had seen the minister online in other apps.

“I am not saying that he doesn’t read anything – if it’s Line, he’s active,” he said, referring to another messaging app popular among teens and younger people. “For Line, whoever posts anything, Kanharith ‘likes’ it all.”

Yet though a plethora of the messaging apps exist, one has become the preferred app for Cambodian officials – Telegram, an app that offers end-to-end encrypted chat and calls, and presents a user’s contacts in order of when they were last online on the service.

The app’s widespread adoption, government officials said, has helped speed up communications – but it has also betrayed a growing distrust, even among officials, in the security of regular phone lines, which can be monitored by the state and have been the source of numerous embarrassing leaks. One anti-corruption advocate, meanwhile, questioned whether all government communications should be so secretive – or so easily erased.

At 4pm yesterday, Hun Sen’s cabinet chief, Ho Sothy, and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha were both online. Kuy Pisey, the deputy head of the Border Affairs Committee, had last been on one minute ago, while Constitutional Council member and former Land Minister Im Chhun Lim had been online 15 minutes before.

Active about an hour before that were Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron. Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol had been seen last at 7:54pm on Tuesday, while Kanharith, the minister of information, was last on Telegram on Saturday.

“All officials use all of them – Telegram, WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook and Line – but the majority like Telegram, because you can write a lot and send a lot of pictures,” said Kompong Speu Provincial Governor Vei Samnang, who was also on Telegram at 4pm.

“If a person does not know how to use it, we call them an out-of-date person,” he added.

Even as Telegram has over the past two years come to dominate communications in the Cambodian People’s Party, few have been able to explain why it – rather than other apps – has become the app of choice, other than because it is so widely used.

“It is a chicken and egg thing,” Hun Manet, the eldest son of Hun Sen and the head of the Defence Ministry’s CounterTerrorism Department, said in a message sent over Telegram, which he regularly uses and was on at about 5pm yesterday. “I use Telegram and other applications because they are already widely used.”

“Please take into account that I am not a tech savvy person, so whichever applications offer convenience and an effective way to communicate, I embrace it,” he said.

Yet Telegram has in fact proved so popular among officials that Manet, like many others, has his own set of “stickers” on the service. To express their emotions, users can send “stickers” of Manet clapping, clasping a rifle or saluting. If those fail to capture the desired sentiment, there’s also one of Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap giving the thumbs up.

Also available are stickers of Hun Sen’s youngest son, Hun Many, smiling or taking a “selfie” with Environment Minister Say Samal, and of Meas Sophearith, son of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Deputy Commander in Chief Meas Sophea, wearing a fake moustache.

Chin Malin, another spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said he believed Telegram had become so widely used in the government because officials could sync their group chats – and documents – across the Telegram apps on their smartphones and computers.

“It is individual use, but to make it easy to coordinate in group work, we also establish a group Telegram for sharing information with faster communication,” Malin said of how his ministry works. “Moreover, we can also use it from our computer and laptop.”

While officials prefer Telegram, for police, WhatsApp is the app of choice, with many refusing to forward photographs or news to journalists through any other medium.

(National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith is listed as last being online on Telegram “a long time ago”, but was on WhatsApp at 5pm yesterday).

Heng Bunleng, the police chief of Kompong Popil commune in Prey Veng’s Pea Reang district, said he did not know why WhatsApp was preferred but that its adoption had made his job much easier when it comes to sending reports to the provincial and national level.

“I use WhatsApp, and it helps us a lot – we don’t have to go and meet people face-to-face,” Bunleng said. “We report to them through WhatsApp and don’t waste time with making reports; we don’t have to go to printing shops because we can just write or record, and send.”

Both also provide more practical benefits: encryption. After two years of leaked recorded telephone calls – and Anti-Corruption Unit Chairman Om Yentiengs’s declaration last year that the state could tap anyone’s phone – not everyone trusts phone lines as much as the apps.

“The security is better,” said Kanharith, the information minister, over Telegram.

Sothy, the chief of Hun Sen’s cabinet, was more cryptic about his own use of the app: “Some people choose their way to talk. Some prefer to go in the street than in [among] land mines,” he said.

Like most messaging apps, Telegram allows users to encrypt chats end-to-end – though the option is not turned on by default and there have been reports of messages intercepted. Yet unlike others, it allows its users to delete anything sent on both ends of the chat, removing evidence of things that in hindsight may have been, for instance, mistakenly sent.

“So if someone wants to find proof of a discussion that happened and the other person wanted it gone, then it works perfectly,” said Ky Kalyan, an overseas CPP member and organiser based in Australia. “I found myself scrolling through looking for a discussion to prove something was said, but it was gone.”

Yet the main reason for the adoption of the apps remains the distrust of regular phone lines, said Transparency International Cambodia director Preap Kol – even as he added that their widespread adoption by officials could cause issues for public record keeping.

“I no longer trust that mobile phone companies in Cambodia can secure our privacy and safe communications via direct phone call and SMS,” Kol said of his own use of the apps. “Thus I am turning to apps such as Telegram and other means that I believe are safer to communicate.”

But when it comes to government officials, he added, not everything should be so secretive.

“It depends on what motivates the usage of Telegram,” he continued. “For instance, there are official communications that are supposed to be done through formal ways and for record keeping that can be made public or for purpose of auditing.”

In any case, with the use of the apps now so widespread in the government, and Hun Sen’s orders for all officials to use them or risk missing out on positions, they appear here to stay – for better or worse.

Kim Rithy, the deputy governor of Kandal province, did not immediately reply to messages over Telegram last week, but in a later message said that while the apps had their utility in bringing people closer, they could also be a nuisance with the constant buzzing.

“The bad thing about these communication apps is that they constantly alert non-stop if you have many friends or belong to many professional or social groups,” Rithy said.

“People also expect you to reply back instantly. This can be distracting to busy working professionals.”


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