PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA —
On a sweltering day in July of last year, swarms of people streamed in near perfect unison from sleepy restaurants lining the road of Angk Ta Saom village to join in a funeral procession.
It wasn’t from television that they knew the body of slain activist Kem Ley was about to arrive. Nearly all stations instituted a blackout of the monumental event.
The requiem was instead streamed live on Facebook by U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) and its team of more than 30 video journalists, along with citizen journalists, activist monks and others armed with little more than 3G connections.
Video and photos flooding Facebook that day showed of hundreds of thousands of people coming out to pay respects to a man they believed was assassinated by the government, signaling perhaps the clearest warning yet of the power of social media.
“There was this resentment, this build up of frustration at the government and seeing a renowned public figure being assassinated like that just brought everything over, just boiled everything over,” recalled Catherine V. Harry, a Cambodian journalist, writer and actor who has shot to stardom as a social media feminist activist.
“I see some of my friends who had not talked to me about Kem Ley at all; they started posting stuff about how they were upset by that...they started to express that once they saw other people expressing that as well, they became more brave in doing that,” she said.
Harry has experienced firsthand the power of Facebook video in a country where she says state control of TV confines programming to an antiquated, misogynistic and tightly restrictive value system.
A recent video of hers directly confronting the taboo surrounding women's virginity in Cambodian society has been watched almost 2 million times and set off a firestorm of debate online.
While many media outlets, including RFA, have since fallen to intimidation and other political pressure in a sustained government clampdown on independent voices, Facebook remains alive and healthy. RFA and Voice of America are overseen by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Many, including Harry, are wondering if social media platforms such as Facebook will soon be caught in the dragnet of the government’s crackdown on non-government and civil society.
Online arms race
In barely five years, Facebook has gone from a platform ignored by the government to one of its key tools for communicating directly with its citizens.
It's a progression that Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who studies the use of social media by autocratic and “hybrid” democratic states, has seen across the world.
Gunitsky notes that an initial period of euphoria over the democratic potential of social media gives way to the realization that authoritarian regimes also can use it. He also says beyond that, platforms like Facebook help regimes circumvent the often distorted information they are fed by local elites inflating their efficiency and hiding corruption through direct user feedback.
“So it’s a way to call attention to local problems and to gain the short-term benefit of popularity from your citizens without necessarily having to take any huge reforms,” he said.
In September 2016, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive ordering all government ministers to create working groups to process and resolve Facebook complaints on a daily basis.
Hun Sen has become fond of making Facebook interventions himself and using it to announce decisions, such as the cancellation of a toll on one of the major national roads.
Kevin Doyle watched the birth of social media in Cambodia as editor-in-chief of the recently shuttered Cambodia Daily newspaper.
He’s now researching the subject at the University of Dublin in Ireland and said the Cambodian government has developed sophisticated nationwide programs.
“Now I’ve been talking to sources in Phnom Penh who described to me some of the tactics that the ruling party is using in terms of mobilizing support officially on Facebook - users who are actually working for the government and actually have titles as being part of the cyber units,” he said.
Doyle said sources told him dozens of social media operatives in every province were operating dozens of accounts, each under a hierarchy administered at the provincial level.
“Getting out messages, checking criticisms of the government, responding, you know, being very active - it being a whole new area of engagement rather than just the rapid reaction unit at the council of ministers - they’ve got the cyber unit.”
Huy Vannak is one of the most powerful people in Cambodian media. He is head of news at national broadcaster CTN, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and president of the recently established, ruling party-backed Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia.
He will not be drawn on specifics of the government’s social media programs, but believes the space is dangerously prone to disinformation from members of the public untrained in the responsibilities of journalism.
“You need to define who uses it. If the intellectual uses it, I’m sure they use for the better way, better action; but, if the stupid people use it, then the result will become stupid,” he said.
“I don’t see any moment that Cambodia will close Facebook. I don’t see it; but, the important step that the Cambodian government needs to do, is to have a cyber law.”
Shutting down critics
While that law remains on the drawing board, existing legal mechanisms have been used against people posting online.
Numerous opposition members and supporters have been jailed for Facebook postings, including former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Senator Kim Sok Hour, who was charged over a post related to Cambodia’s border dispute with Vietnam.
Student Kong Raya was jailed for 18 months in 2016 for a Facebook post a court deemed treasonous, while earlier in September, police arrested a 20-year-old woman near the Thai border for an allegedly defamatory post.
Meanwhile, attacks on civil society and the press continue, with the NGO Equitable Cambodia now joining NDI, RFA, The Cambodia Daily, Mother Nature and more than 10 radio stations, which have been pushed into closure in the past month.
Doyle said that feeling they had struck an effective balance between their messaging and harsh sanctions against people who stepped out of line, the Cambodian government was unlikely to risk a backlash by attacking Facebook itself ahead of next year’s election.
“For the popularity, I think it would be less unpopular for them to shut down the election than shut down Facebook,” he said.