An unidentified group is masterminding the spread of false rumors of kidney-harvesting kidnappers targeting children, the National Police said on Monday in an attempt to quench Facebook-fueled hysteria pitting violent mobs against suspects and authorities.
Confronted by a spate of false kidnapping reports from across the country, National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith assured reporters several times on Monday that there was no evidence of widespread kidnapping or organ harvesting.
“I would like to take this opportunity to inform the public throughout the country that…this news is not true,” General Chantharith said.
Fifteen kidnapping reports have been made across 10 provinces in the past 20 days, he said. But investigations have turned up only one actual case of kidnapping, an incident in Kompong Speu province allegedly perpetrated by an aunt seeking to extort money from the victim’s mother, Gen. Chantharith told reporters after a meeting at the National Police general-secretariat on Monday.
“The 14 other cases were stories that were psychologically influenced from this poisoning of [social] environment,” the spokesman said, providing examples of parents reporting their children kidnapped after they had wandered into markets, attended Christian churches, came home late from school or ran away with a romantic partner.
He also issued a warning to Facebook users, saying that “exaggeration and publishing of fake news, sending out fake news, is prosecutable.”
Late last night, Takeo provincial police were questioning a suspect, Ly Chhaya, who on Sunday posted a video on Facebook about a girl being chased by two Vietnamese men—a story which the girl and her family denied, according to Samraong district police chief Moeung Sarun.
Similar false reports have stoked fears nationwide and incited large mobs that have attacked suspects.
Two men were beaten unconscious on Saturday in Kompong Thom province after more than 1,000 people assembled to accuse them of kidnapping children to harvest their organs, despite more than 100 police and military police officials protecting the suspects.
Baray district police chief Soung Then said one of the men was wanted for theft, not kidnapping, and the case has resulted in the arrest of Nay Sineng, a CNRP activist who authorities say posted false information about the suspects being Vietnamese organ harvesters on Facebook.
Similar rumors of kidnappers and organ harvesters, eventually debunked by police, struck Preah Sihanouk, Battambang and Pailin provinces over the weekend.
The origin of the nationwide spike in kidnapping rumors remains unclear, and has perplexed provincial and local police chiefs, who have at times struggled to tame the bloodlust of angry mobs.
Gen. Chantharith said that police suspected a single group was masterminding a disinformation campaign.
“Our assumption is that there could be a group that has the intention to [spread false reports] in order to gain something, but we don’t know yet,” Gen. Chantharith said, adding that police had “some clues” supporting their conclusion but were not yet sharing potential motives.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan was less reticent to speculate on motives, taking aim at rivals of the ruling party.
In a post to the Facebook page of a CPP-aligned youth federation, Mr. Eysan said, “It could be an intention of a group of people who want to cause chaos in the society and…who want to influence the political environment in order to have an excuse to diminish the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Ly Chhaya.