From the 1990s to the turn of the last decade, the CPP had a stranglehold over the lion’s share of Cambodia’s media. Radio and television fed their listeners and viewers a diet of gushing accolades about Prime Minister Hun Sen’s achievements.
Then came Facebook and everything changed. Cambodians suddenly had access to a whole range of information about their government—as well as a platform to express their opinions and, sometimes, anger with their prime minister.
Before Facebook took off in Cambodia, control of the mainstream media through family ties to the ruling party, or through loyalist tycoons, meant criticism of the party was muted, and rarely heard on official channels. Dissent was fomented by word of mouth.
But a boom in internet access around the turn of the decade opened the door to a new world on the web. With the meteoric rise of Facebook about two years later, Cambodians enjoyed a new freedom. And with it, they began to speak more openly than ever before.
Political parties were also quick to realize the power of social media.
The CNRP saw an opportunity to ride the internet wave and opposition-aligned Facebook pages quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of followers. The CPP—so used to the comfort of its media monopoly—misjudged the shift and were caught napping, left lagging behind in “likes” and influence online.
Facebook was widely touted as a major factor in the opposition’s near shock victory in the 2013 election.
The CPP took note.
“Facebook played an important role in the opposition surge in 2013, and the government has spent the last four years learning how to blunt the CNRP’s comparative advantage in social media messaging,” said Sebastian Strangio, a political analyst and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
The party also began to take note of who was active on the internet and what was being said about whom. Since then, discord with the government on Facebook has become increasingly dangerous. Student Kung Raiya was handed an 18-month sentence in March last year after calling for a “color revolution” on the social network. The 26-year-old political science student was arrested while walking to class at Phnom Penh’s Khemarak University.
Last week, Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the Khmer Power Party, was thrown in jail for five years for incitement over posts criticizing the premier and military leaders. A woman was charged with the same crime last month, accused of using a live Facebook video to suggest Mr. Hun Sen was behind government critic Kem Ley’s murder last year.
On Saturday, a woman in Poipet City was detained for calling the premier “a traitor” in response to a post on the social network by government mouthpiece Fresh News, although she has since been released on bail. There are numerous other cases.
The arrests come amid a government clampdown on independent media, with the Information Ministry ordering the closure of at least 15 stations carrying content from U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and the Voice of Democracy taken off the airwaves completely. The Cambodia Daily has been given until Monday to pay an unaudited $6.3 million tax bill or face being shut down.
As the government seeks to silence opposition voices in the lead-up to next year’s election, analysts say sharing platforms like Facebook will be under more scrutiny, and the country’s social media dissidents will be increasingly targeted in the run up to next year’s crucial general election.
To do this, the ruling party has had to learn how to claw back its lost ground in the cyber race.
“One of the ways the CPP has done this is by learning to exploit Facebook itself; another has been to migrate pre-existing speech restrictions to the online world,” Mr. Strangio said in an email.
“This is about sending the message that criticisms of Hun Sen or the government will not be permitted—on any platform,” he added. “As long as the popularity of Facebook continues to rise, I expect these prosecutions to continue.”
Sophal Ear, a policy analyst and author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said he believed the unrelenting crackdown on social media critics would continue unabated “until a deafening silence falls upon Cambodia prior to 2018.”
The suppression of free speech could backfire though and push the country’s netizens into the arms of the opposition, he said. The internet for the first time last year surpassed television as the most important source of news among Cambodians.
“The more they do this, the more people will not like it. An entire country cannot be turned into a prison of conscience,” he said. “For each Poipet lady that gets hauled into court, there will be 10,000 more like her who will whisper and be outraged.”
Paul Bradshaw, course leader for the MA Data Journalism at Birmingham City University in the U.K., said similar efforts are being made across the globe by regimes—authoritarian or democratic—which seek to control public opinion.
“When the tools for mass communication are available to a significant part of the population, then it becomes a threat to anyone who seeks to control public perception or try to set the agenda,” Mr. Bradshaw said in an email.
“Obviously many social movements have relied on some form of communication, with the most famous recent example being the role of social media in the Arab Spring,” he said, in reference to the revolutions that spread across the Middle East in 2011.
As governments attempt to control information and dissent on Facebook, more users are turning to alternative means of communication, Mr. Bradshaw added.
“The common criticism is that stifling dissent pushes it underground where it is harder to monitor. But it’s still early days in seeing what happens,” he said.
“Certainly people seem a lot more wary of publishing things on social media, and more likely to use more private channels such as chat apps.”
While using the courts to target Cambodians criticizing the government online, the CPP has also realized the importance of promoting its own social media image.
Upon hitting 1 million “likes” in 2015, Mr. Hun Sen finally claimed ownership of his Facebook page and started regularly posting selfies with his family, live streams of him meeting the public, along with the occasional rant.
He now boasts more than 8 million “likes,” although questions have been raised over the premier’s surprising popularity in countries such as India, the Philippines and Brazil—all well-known “click farm” hubs where few Cambodians live.
At about the same time, government-aligned Fresh News sprouted, publishing reams of often disparaging stories about opposition voices online.
Mr. Strangio said the government was probably looking to other authoritarian countries for tips on how to wage an effective campaign of online control, without establishing a “Great Firewall,” the name given to China’s control of the internet using legislation and technology.
“Putin’s Russia and the [People’s Republic of China] have done ‘pioneering’ work in this regard,” Mr. Strangio said.
“I don’t expect that Cambodia will try to implement Chinese-style internet controls; more likely is an informal strategy of flooding Facebook with pro-government messaging, while pursuing selective prosecutions that sow fear and prompt self-censorship.”
The government in Cambodia is quick to point out that its only motives are upholding the law. Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng said those who had been arrested were only targeted because their statements were defamatory.
“If it’s defamation or something like that then we have the law,” he said.
“If you call me a traitor. If you call me a thief or a robber. If you accuse me of doing something that I haven’t done, that is defamation. You don’t have any grounds. That’s it,” he said.
However, Miguel Chanco, lead Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Mr. Hun Sen was likely taking inspiration from the likes of Vietnam, which now boasts more than 52 million active Facebook accounts but has seen high-profile bloggers thrown in jail for up to 10 years.
“The government won’t be able to go after every critic on Facebook, but I suspect that it will try to silence enough in the hopes of instilling ‘discipline’ online,” Mr. Chanco said.
“What the government is currently doing is not too dissimilar from the tactics being employed in the likes of Vietnam and Thailand—that is, stretching the boundaries of what are already vaguely-worded laws to silence dissent online, he added.
Mr. Ear agreed that the Cambodian government was taking inspiration from its regional neighbors. However, the relative freedom Cambodians have experienced online could prove tough to scale back, he said.
“Thailand for one, Singapore for another, China most of all, but these are places with limited internet freedoms to begin with,” he said. “The problem is that people in Cambodia are not used to this. Once they have tasted freedom, it’s hard to take it away from them.”