Fake News and the Death of Democracy in Cambodia

Fake News and the Death of Democracy in Cambodia

Fake News and the Death of Democracy in Cambodia

Forget tanks and rifles. Like other autocrats, Cambodia’s Hun Sen uses fake news to justify oppression.


At half-past-midnight on September 3, more than 100 police raided the home of Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha. The security forces hustled him away to a maximum-security prison just outside of Phnom Penh. More than two months later, he’s languishing in a cell, awaiting trial for treason.

“Since my father’s arrest, there hasn’t been a day that I didn’t cry myself to sleep,” said Samathida Kem, Sokha’s daughter who was on the phone with her father as he was detained. “His last words were, ‘They’re handcuffing me.’ My mother was left screaming and crying alone with two housemaids as they took him and all the men in our house away.”

At the time, Samathida was safely out of the country, but now she’s afraid to return home. “We have been the targets from the beginning,” she told me. “My mom is alone in Cambodia. Even with fear, she refuses to leave my father.”

In retrospect, the warning signals that Cambodia was headed toward outright dictatorship should have been obvious, especially at the point I became ensnared. But the signs were so absurd they were hard to take seriously.

Ten days earlier, I opened my laptop to alarm. “Did you see this?!” a frantic colleague asked in a Facebook message. She attached an awkwardly translated piece from a government-aligned online tabloid called Fresh News: “An American citizen, Geoffrey Cain, used to be a leader planning a mass movement to topple the former South Korean president, Mrs. Park Geun-hye.” The “exposé” was entirely about me, and included snapshots someone had obtained from my private Facebook page.

My first reaction was to laugh; the story was ludicrous. “Toppling” a nation’s government? Last March, after millions of demonstrators filled the streets, South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached for corruption, removed from office, and arrested. According to Fresh News, I instigated the uprising that forced her out.

Um, OK, I thought.

Then the conspiracy got weirder. “This person is now employed by a superpower country to plan a strategy assisting the CNRP”—the acronym for Cambodia’s opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party—“to topple the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

As evidence, they showed a dinner photograph of me eating Korean barbecue in Cambodia with Samathida, who is a friend of mine.

The idea that eating barbecue with the daughter of a politician makes me a secret agent with the ability to oust the Korean president is preposterous. No one could possibly believe that, I thought. The Fresh News website was buggy and amateurish. I doubted anyone would read or care about it.

“I’m not going to say anything,” I told my friend. “Why bother denying the story? That would give the impression it matters.”

The next morning, I woke up to another worried missive from a human-rights group. Within hours, it was a stream of phone calls and e-mails.

Over the weekend, the attacks against me in the media kept spreading. A major Cambodian newspaper, Kampuchea Thmey, picked up the story. Then Apsara TV, a popular station owned by ruling-party stalwarts, splashed the story that I was a spy all over prime-time news, along with a snapshot of my non-public Facebook page and the dinner photo. Most alarming was that the coverage compared me to the Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, who faces 10 years in a Cambodian prison on espionage charges.

“Stay out of Cambodia until the situation changes,” Elizabeth Becker, a former New York Times reporter and an author of a book on Cambodia, wrote in an e-mail. “Falsely charging Americans as spies to provide a cover for nefarious undertakings has a long and deadly history in Cambodia.”

Becker would know. In December 1978, she was part of a delegation of two journalists and a British academic, Malcolm Caldwell, given a rare tour of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. “Several files in Tuol Sleng [a former torture complex] describe how I was a CIA spy and should be killed because of the questions I asked during my 1978 visit with two other foreigners,” she wrote in her e-mail. “One assassin said he was ordered to kill me. We were attacked and Malcolm Caldwell was killed instead of me.”

Becker’s intent was not to compare Hun Sen’s Cambodia to Pol Pot’s, but it was a chilling reminder to take these accusations seriously. What seemed like “fake news” with no audience and no purpose turned out almost certainly to be a state-led attack, with Fresh News acting as a front for government propaganda.

I’m confident about the government’s involvement for a few reasons. First, a well-placed Cambodian friend, who was in touch with the government’s Ministry of Information, told me her contact said they knew I wasn’t a spy, but that they needed an American scapegoat to go after the opposition. Second, according to The Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen personally ordered the formation of a high-powered inter-ministerial working group to produce anti-opposition propaganda. Third, the newspaper has also reported that Fresh News appears to take orders from the ruling party.

On August 28, I was in a layover in Bangkok’s airport when a panicked member of the opposition party wrote me a message on WhatsApp.

“They opened an investigation!” She attached an article from a Cambodian newspaper, Rasmei Kampuchea.

“Um, who’s under investigation?” I asked.

“They didn’t name names. They’re probably targeting the opposition. The Americans aren’t the target. That’s just their propaganda,” she said.

When, six days later, they detained Kem Sokha, we finally knew for certain the purpose of the fake news in which I had been a prop. As “evidence” of Kem Sokha’s connections to the US government, Cambodian authorities showed a two-minute speech from 2013 in Australia in which he talked about getting foreign advice. “The USA, which has assisted me, has asked me to take the model from Yugoslavia, Serbia, where they were able to change the dictator Milosevic,” he said.

I couldn’t fathom the horror that Kem Sokha’s family had to face, but I was unsure of what I could do. If I helped the opposition party, I’d confirm suspicions that I was a CIA meddler, which could then be used against Kem Sokha during his trial. But if I stood back and did nothing, I risked being complicit in a drama in which I had become a minor character.

I wanted to return to Cambodia and help, but I knew I couldn’t. I booked a flight back to South Korea and then home to Chicago.

The next day as the opposition leader’s arrest, The Cambodia Daily shut down its operations after being hit with a conveniently timed $6.3 million tax bill. Nearly a dozen radio stations had their broadcasting licenses suspended, and one I used to consult for, Voice of Democracy Radio, was blocked from the airwaves. The opposition party’s highest-ranking woman, Mu Sochua, fled the country. The government shuttered the Cambodia offices of the National Democratic Institute, the global development arm of the US Democratic Party, and expelled its foreign staff.

The crackdown was sudden and swift. The government’s “press and quick reaction unit” aired a 22-minute video that showed the lengths that state officials were going to invent an international conspiracy.

Lessons from Color Revolution in Yugoslavia and Serbia Which USA Dictated Kem Sokha to Implement in Cambodia Have Crossed the Red Line was the title of the film, the text displayed at the beginning over clips of chaotic street protests and a burning, capsized truck.

After the US-led NATO campaigns bombed Yugoslavia and Syria, the film claimed Cambodia was next. Then it showed photographs of me and other Americans. We were all part of the “US Interference Network,” connecting us to the CIA and US Agency for International Development (USAID). The US embassy in Phnom Penh has forcefully denied these accusations.

“The ringleader who was the foreign puppet was charged,” the film’s narrator declared about Kem Sokha, showing a photo of him on his perp walk the night of his arrest.

In a speech on September 15, Hun Sen ordered his police and military commanders to “research the presence of all persons of American nationality suspected of conducting espionage after the problems of 2013 and also even before that to find out which of them entered Cambodia.”

A military commander later declared he would “smash each and every person whose intent it is to make a color revolution.” It’s clear that if I were to return to Cambodia, I’d likely be arrested.

A decade ago, this isn’t where I thought digital media would lead Cambodia. When I first arrived in the country in July 2007 as an anthropology researcher, I noticed an odd dichotomy. There was the government propaganda. Hun Sen, for instance, was venerated with the official title “Illustrious Prince, Great Supreme Protector, and Famed Warrior.” State messages also implied that he was the reincarnation of a 16th-century king. The only other places I heard myth-making of this intensity was during my reporting in North Korea and Myanmar, two far more repressive states.

But Cambodia’s media environment was also among the most open in Southeast Asia. Its two award-winning daily newspapers, The Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily, were fearless—and regime officials tolerated them because they needed reliable information, too. Young urbanites were starting to embrace the Internet, mobile phones, blogging, and other tools of online self-expression. The late 2000s were a time of hope. I thought if democracy was likely to flourish anywhere in the region, Cambodia was the place.

During that time, I befriended a group of young Cambodian techies who called themselves “Cloggers” (for “Cambodian blogger”). In August 2007, the Cloggers invited me to their conference, the Cambodian Bloggers’ Summit. It was an exciting day of panels, games, and lectures on the possibilities of the internet. This bright group of millennials was bypassing what little censorship existed in Cambodia and turning social media into a force for good.

“Don’t you think this is great, that people can use the Internet to get around their governments?” I recall another anthropologist asking me after the event.

But looking back, I made a grave error in my reporting. I didn’t step back and question whether the pro-social-media club was blinded by its optimism. The government, it turned out, could marshal online tools to a much greater extent than a few bloggers.

A generation of Cambodians grew up listening to radios first distributed by a United Nations peacekeeping force in the early 1990s. Radios were the perfect medium for educating people in a poor nation about civics and democracy: They were cheap, didn’t require the listeners to be literate, and didn’t broadcast through an expensive network of landlines.

But, as the prices of mobile phones fell, many Cambodians leapfrogged television and now get their news online. In their hands and pockets, people suddenly had access to a new, personalized window to the world: Facebook.

By 2016, almost half of Cambodians owned a smartphone—up from about 20 percent three years earlier—and Facebook was the country’s most popular news source. But Facebook apparently has a difficult time policing content in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. Bloody, uncensored motorbike-crash photographs and striptease videos fill well-populated Cambodian Facebook groups, unnoticed by the company and left up for everyone to see.

But to turn Facebook networks—even the ones with gore and porn—into a movement to squash political opponents seemed unlikely. I used to think there’s no way a few people with smartphones could wipe away the years of state building since the end of the Cold War. The diplomats and researchers I knew in Cambodia had reached a similar consensus. If there was a threat to democracy, it would come from elsewhere.

Though Hun Sen is an elected member of parliament, he acts as an authoritarian, reigning for 32 years as one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His regime harasses, sues, jails, and assassinates critics. But Hun Sen has tolerated elections. And so, with evidence of growing discontent, his government created a few “spies” like myself to justify eliminating democratic freedoms that threatened his rule.

In past, Hun Sen has relied on more traditional strongman tactics to maintain power. In 1997, Hun Sen removed his rivals in a coup d’état, sending tanks and soldiers into the streets. But with fake news, autocrats no longer need to resort to open violence or to dispatch their special forces to capture radio and TV stations to broadcast their messages. From Facebook, leaders can dream up conspiracies, publish them on their own fake-news pages, use targeted advertising to reach susceptible audiences, and voilà—they have manufactured a new ruling mandate.

What’s incredible, I learned, is that people believe these government fictions. In the days after the espionage accusations against me, hundreds of Cambodians tried to add me on Facebook and wrote to me that they knew I was a spy. With declining access to independent newspapers and radio broadcasts, Facebook seemed to be their most-trusted source of information. They were keen to out me like the “traitors” and “puppets” of past revolutions. If there is a lesson, it’s that institutions—the universities, businesses, newspapers, and government offices whose interest should be distributing reliable information—do not, perhaps can not, stand in the way of fake news.

The relative silence in the international press about this is scary. The streets are calm; and so there’s nothing that gets the attention of CNN. Today’s power grabs can happen on obscure websites, in foreign languages, away from prime-time international television.

Even with Kem Sokha in prison and his party in disarray, Hun Sen’s purge wasn’t finished. Last Thursday, Cambodia’s supreme court dissolved the opposition party. The judge, a member of the ruling party, banned 100 opposition lawmakers from politics for five years. The vacated parliamentary seats will be handed to the ruling party and its allies.

With that, democracy in Cambodia was finished. Cambodia is effectively a one-party state. And it started with news reports at which I had laughed.

“This is one of the oddest cases we’ve seen,” a representative from the Committee to Protect Journalists told me on the phone. Yet in many ways it’s indicative of how despots seize power in the age of Facebook.

“If the Cambodian Bloggers’ Summit happened today,” commented one of the participants, who wished to remain anonymous because he works for a government agency, “all of us participants would be [portrayed as] spies.”

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