A ruling party spokesman on Thursday said the Cambodian government is looking to draft a “fake news” law, the same week similar legislation was introduced in Malaysia.
The announcement, made by Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan, followed a meeting between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Siem Reap on the sidelines of Mekong River Commission Summit on Wednesday during which Phuc expressed concerns about so-called fake news coverage.
The premier’s personal assistant, Eang Sophallet, told media that Phuc suggested an exchange of information between the two countries to cooperate on supposedly inaccurate news, which he said could cause misunderstandings between the two neighbours.
“It refers to some media in which they use the wrong information or fake news,” Sophallet said. “Samdech [Hun Sen] has agreed with him.”
CPP spokesman Eysan said the Cambodian premier’s approval of Phuc’s suggestion meant that a technical working group will now look into drafting a law to regulate “fake news”, though it was unclear what exactly would fall under such a term, which has often been used by politicians to call into question criticism of themselves.
“For preventing it, first is to make a law to prevent people from saying wrong things and secondly it is the electronic and technical part to prevent it,” he said.
Earlier this week, Malaysia’s parliament pushed through a controversial law widely criticised for including hefty punitive measures – up to six years in prison – and vague definitions of what constitutes “fake” news.
The bill is expected to clear the Senate and has been seen by rights activists as a way for corruption-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak to silence critics ahead of scheduled national elections in August.
The prospect of such a law in Cambodia would raise eyebrows amid a crackdown on media organisations, which has coincided with a broader push to clamp down on the opposition and civil society organisations.
Independent newspaper the Cambodia Daily closed in the face of a $6.3 million tax bill, more than a dozen radio stations closed for allegedly violating their contractual obligations and widely popular Radio Free Asia ceased in-country operations over tax and registration issues.
Meanwhile, Cambodian citizens have frequently been in the sights of authorities over political speech on Facebook critical of the ruling party.
While it was not immediately clear what news Nguyen Xuan Phuc was taking exception to, Eysan said that an analyst had written a story using information supposedly gleaned from secret and closed-door meetings – which he insisted showed that it was fake.
Eysan seemed to be referring to an article from the online publication Asia Times from March that quotes unnamed government sources alleging that senior Vietnamese politburo members had expressed displeasure “behind closed doors” at Hun Sen’s crackdown on the opposition.
It also asserts that Cambodia’s geopolitical and economic sway towards China was causing friction between the two neighbouring countries.
While Phuc made clear that the two countries’ relationship remained solid, Hun Sen himself uncharacteristically lashed out at Vietnam last month, saying: “I will question our friend Vietnam, whether they are actually loyal to me and Cambodia.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said he was unaware about efforts to draft such a law, but noted that the Interior Ministry had completed a draft of a cybercrime law that would look at other online crimes.
Ed Legaspi, executive director for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said if Cambodia followed Malaysia’s example by drafting a vague and far reaching law, it would further erode an already shrinking media landscape.
The Kingdom has already witnessed a troubling number of prosecutions for online speech in the past year, noted rights advocate Chak Sopheap, who also conceded that a genuine effort of some sort is needed to be made to tackle fake news.
“However, the term ‘fake news’ – in the US, Cambodia, and elsewhere – is routinely manipulated by politicians with nefarious intentions, particularly the desire to stifle criticism of their own wrongdoings and shortcomings,” she said.