The Ministry of Information held a closed-door meeting yesterday to discuss how to combat so-called fake news on social media.
Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith called the meeting yesterday but declined to go into detail about the ideas discussed.
“It’s just brainstorming,” Kimseng said. “The minister advised us he wants us to talk about how to come to the front to respond to fake news on social media.”
Kimseng denied that officials are drafting new regulations on the issue, despite the fact that the ministry said on its Facebook page yesterday that officials were discussing an “inter-ministerial prakas”.
He also said the discussion had nothing to do with a proposed “social media law” announced by ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun last month. At the time, Vun said lawmakers were seeking to punish social media users who are “attacking public figures illegally without evidence”.
When contacted yesterday, Vun would only say, “I don’t talk to The Phnom Penh Post.”
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith could not be reached yesterday and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he did not have information about any social media laws because they are “not my responsibility”.
Prosecutions for online speech have spiked in the past year, a trend that Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Chak Sopheap called “deeply troubling”.
In the most recent example, a man from Kampong Cham province was arrested on his wedding day last month for calling the Cambodian government “authoritarian” in a video clip on Facebook.
According to Sopheap, the term “fake news” is often used by politicians in both the US and Cambodia to stifle criticism of their own shortcomings. “The key difference in Cambodia is that the government has the power to actually follow through on its criticisms,” she said in an email.
With the closure of independent media outlets like Radio Free Asia and the Cambodia Daily, “more and more Cambodians are likely to take to social media as both a news source and a platform for self-expression”, Sopheap added. “As such, the increasing attention being paid to the online space is unsurprising, though it should be treated with serious concern.”
She also said that any legislative processes should be conducted transparently, with the input of civil society and the public.
Legal expert Yoeurng Sotheara said that any new regulations or proclamations must follow the “parent laws” – in this case the Cambodian Constitution.
“Chapter 3 is about the right to freedom of opinion, freedom of expression,” Sotheara said. “And this right cannot be violated.”
Sutawan Chanprasert, a Bangkok-based program officer at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, agreed that the term “fake news” is so broad that it could easily become a political tool if any regulations are passed.
“The situation seems to be escalating and more serious due to the upcoming election as well, for the government to maintain their power,” Chanprasert said.