What’s Behind Cambodia’s War on Fake News?

The government’s efforts to regulate fake news have raised concerns amid a wider campaign to suppress dissent as elections approach.

Last week, the Cambodian government announced that it would begin taking measures to enforce earlier efforts to regulate media coverage. While the government has called the measures part of a war against fake news, it also comes amid a wider campaign against dissent ahead of upcoming elections later this month which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) under Prime Minister Hun Sen is keen to win at all costs.

As I have noted before in these pages, a number of states in Asia, including Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore, have been examining ways to combat the spread of fake news. Though these efforts have been undertaken in the name of combating fake news, cracking down on cybercrimes, and preserving order and national security, they have also heightened concerns about the threats to personal freedoms and the inroads made by anti-democratic regimes.

In Cambodia’s case, the worries have been particularly high because the regulation of information under the banner of countering fake news has come amid a massive crackdown on dissent ahead of general elections on July 27 that has been underway. Media outlets have not been spared in this effort, including not just English language publications like the Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post but also dozens of other radio programs and broadcasts.

Over the past few months, Cambodia has stepped up efforts to regulate the flow of online information as part of a wider campaign to suppress dissent ahead of upcoming polls. A notable step came in May, when an inter-ministerial regulation officially paved the way for the interior, telecommunications, and information ministries to pool their efforts to combat the spread of fake news.

At the time, indications were that the inter-ministry working group would set up units with personnel to investigate suspected media platforms spreading fake news before moving forward with potential action. A number of other moves have followed since then, including the processing of registered websites as well as education workshops for members of the media.

On July 4, Phos Sovann, the director general of the Information and Broadcasting General Department at the Ministry of Information, told a news conference that the directive was active and that the Cambodian government would begin taking actions to enforce it. According to Khmer Times, he said that the government would “start to take measures,” which could see violators jailed for two years and fined $1,000. He also reiterated that websites ought to register with the Ministry of Information to avoid being subject to government action.

How exactly these efforts will play out moving forward remains to be seen. Government officials themselves have admitted that there are constraints to what they can do in this respect, including the sheer volume of information to regulate and restrictions on domain names. And the contours of the government’s approach may become clearer following the elections later this month, which is consuming national attention.