Three ministries have jointly warned the public that as of Thursday, they will act against social media users and websites found spreading “fake news disturbing social security and causing chaos, confusion and a loss of trust in the upcoming [July 29 national] elections”.
They said this at a press conference on Wednesday announcing the move, soon after Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday similarly warned that the government has technology which allows it to zero in on any Facebook user within “only six minutes”.
He reminded the public of the government’s announcement last month that it would monitor all news and social networking “to prevent the spread of information that can cause social chaos and threaten national security”.
A prakas (regulation adopted by a minister) signed on May 23 by the ministers of information, interior, and post and telecommunication noted that officials from the three ministries would form an interministry working group.
It will serve to investigate any online media platforms that spread “fake news” before taking action under the Kingdom’s laws.
“The purpose of the measures is to prevent spreading information – whether in the form of text, voice, picture, video or other forms of communication that that would cause chaos and threaten national security, harm relations with other countries, the national economy, public order, and discriminate against the cultural integrity of the country,” it said.
While human rights groups expressed fear that the move would impact the freedom of expression, the Information Ministry’s Department of Information and Broadcasting director-general Phos Sovann said, on the contrary, the measures aimed to protect it.
“If we let fake news spread, [social media] will just be full of fake news and then, in the future, I believe no one is going to use Facebook."
“However, from [Thursday] onwards, there will be measures through telecom regulators and the National Police [to prevent this],” he said.
The three ministries, Sovann said, will take measures to ward against the dissemination of news that violates the law. “The ministries will implement the law to punish [transgressors].
“If [people] break it, we will arrest them. And arrest them twice and arrest them again, and they will realise and acknowledge by themselves that this sharing is wrong . . . The legal measures [will be] equal for all people,” Sovann said.
However, San Putheary, an adviser to the Information Ministry and head of its broadcasting department, told the press conference that the law would be difficult to implement.
“[It is] difficult to use such preventive measures [against] ill-intentioned groups broadcasting fake news, exaggerating information, disturbing social security, and causing racial discrimination and fear [among] people because some websites use foreign domain names,” he said.
Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC) spokesman Im Vutha said websites using the Cambodian “.kh” domain name can be controlled “100 percent”.
“If there is a crime affecting national security or public order, we can shut down [a website using ‘.kh’] or take measures against it anytime … 100 percent. But if a website uses a non-Cambodian domain name] such as ‘.com’ or ‘.org’, like Facebook, then it is hard for us to control.”
Cambodian Center for Applied Philosophy and Ethics director Pa Chanroeun said, as most Cambodians do not fully understand social media usage and are ill-informed on the law, it could lead to many people unwittingly breaking the measures.
The government, he said, should fully inform people about the new law and responsible use of social networks.
“If the authorities start implementing the moves they have announced and start arresting people, our country might not have enough prisons to hold them."
“The interministry announcement is not clear and if [it] is driven by political motives, it will have a huge impact on freedom of expression and human rights and should be of great concern to the public,” Chanroeun said.
Prosecutions for online speech have spiked in the past year, a trend the Cambodian Center for Human Rights has called “deeply troubling”.
A man from Kampong Cham province was arrested on his wedding day in February for calling the Cambodian government “authoritarian” in a video clip on Facebook.