PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Samoeurth Seavmeng sits at a conference table wearing black horn-rimmed glasses.
Meng – as she’s known online and to friends – glances at her smartphone and begins to speak to 10 other young Cambodians gathered at Politikoffee, a weekly forum held in a leafy diplomatic enclave of the capital Phnom Penh.
“It’s very hard to talk about social media. Sometimes people post fake news on Facebook and sometimes people post true news, so it has advantages and disadvantages,” the 22-year-old activist said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen often alleges “fake news” to discredit criticism of his ruling Cambodia People’s Party online. He has even threatened that authorities have the technology to track and arrest a Facebook user within six minutes of a post.
This has sent a wave of fear and intimidation through Cambodia’s public sphere, where once critical voices have begun to self-censor.
Politikoffee is an offline space where Cambodians feel free to debate and voice dissenting views without fear of arrest.
“Before, I used to share and talk a lot about political and social issues on Facebook, but now it’s a little bit scary to talk about these sensitive issues because I’m afraid I’m going to get in trouble,” Meng said.
Cambodia’s government monitors social media.
Last May, Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Information, issued a regulation to monitor Facebook.
The government stated that it wants to control information that is deemed to “threaten the defence and security of the nation, relations with other countries, the economy, public order, and discriminates against the country’s customs and traditions.”
The Cambodia Center for Independent Media stated in its 2017 report that seven Facebook users were either arrested or sought by authorities for sharing information and opinions on the social media platform.
In 2018, an election year, the number is unknown.
“The directive was actually released after they were already identifying, monitoring, charging and imprisoning people,” said Naly Pilorge, director at LICADHO, a human rights monitoring group in Cambodia.
During the election in July, 17 news websites – including RFA, VOA and Cambodia Daily (already closed down in 2017) – were ordered offline for 48 hours.
Critics believe internet censorship is intended to stop outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters inside the country from sharing, liking or commenting on election boycott campaigns.
“The directive came afterwards to legalise what they were doing in practice already. And it changed the habits of the average [social media] user,” Pilorge added. “The people online that we interact with, we see that there are differences. Definitely people are afraid, hesitant, paralysed. Ourselves included. We’re cautious.”
In the lead-up to this year’s election, all independent media was shut down. The main opposition leader was jailed for alleged treason. Two former Radio Free Asia reporters and an Australian filmmaker were jailed for alleged espionage.
Several human rights and political activists languish inside Cambodia’s prisons – guilty until proven innocent according to LICADHO.
“What you’ve seen over the past year and a half is, for example, a minister or the prime minister decides a post is critical or is unacceptable and will immediately denounce a Facebook post,” Pilorge said. “Within 48 hours this individual is being arrested, charged, imprisoned in pre-trial detention and sometimes convicted.”
Though the election is over, censorship online is prevalent. Prime Minister Hun Sen was re-elected last month in a vote criticised by the UN as fundamentally flawed.
“If the situation for freedom of expression worsens, maybe we will have something that we can do together in order to inform [Cambodians] which tool or application they can use without getting into any trouble,” Meng said.
Cambodian digital security trainer Moses Ngeth teaches journalists, activists and human rights campaigners how to secure accounts, and protect data online.
“I train them how to do very basic device security for smartphones, password protection. I tell them to be careful when posting something to social media and not to share any personal information,” he said.
Ngeth believes this new mandate will give the ruling CPP legitimacy to pass its much-anticipated draft cybercrime law.
“People cannot talk on the radio, or on television. It leaves only Facebook. That’s why they increased regulation of social media,” Ngeth said.
Cambodians can still be arrested, charged, jailed or fined for Facebook posts under criminal defamation, royal defamation laws, or incitement.
“I think it’s natural to have fear, but when I see someone is arrested for saying something on social media I don’t feel comfortable. I think that people should feel free to express themselves,” said Kounila Keo, a Cambodian blogger and communications consultant.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has amassed over 10 million followers on Facebook.
Sam Rainsy, the exiled former CNRP leader who ran in the 2013 elections, claims that many are not even Cambodian and may be fake online profiles generated abroad – an accusation the prime minister refutes.
“What [the prime minister] said … ‘When you post, I can know the location’ – it’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard from him,” Ngeth said. “Using Facebook to know the location, it’s not possible,” Ngeth said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and members of the CPP are using Facebook to bypass traditional news media such as newspapers, radio and television, viewed as hostile to the government, to reach Cambodians directly with their messages.
“The prime minister and other public figures campaign on Facebook,” said Ngeth.
Back at the Politikoffee debate, the upcoming cybercrime law is considered for discussion in a future forum.
Meng wants members to be able to communicate online without being punished for spreading “fake news” for commenting on the draft law.
“Now we’re thinking about [developing] a new tool, or a new kind of app, that we can be sure will be safe for us to talk about any issue because we mostly discuss politics,” Meng said.
“We’re not doing anything to harm society. We’re doing it to make society a better place, especially [for] youth to be able to share ideas and contribute.”