Social Media Challenges ‘Official’ Version of Events

Seeing is believing—particularly in a country where the government controls the broadcast media and current affairs news, aired on pro-ruling par­ty TV and radio, is of­ten at odds with the country’s few independent media outlets.

But in the aftermath of a violent clash between striking garment workers and police near Stung Meanchey bridge on Tuesday, which left one bystander dead, the government’s official version of events has been refuted by videos posted online and disseminated through social networking sites.

In an age when smartphones are becoming commonplace and Internet access is expanding, the government is unable to control what images people get to see.

Tuning into any of the nine television stations over the past two days, reports on the clashes in Meanchey district portrays police as being the victims of stone-throwing hooligans, but makes no mention of police officers firing live rounds at protesters, one of which killed street-food vendor Eng Sokhom, 49, and injured several others, witnesses said.

Police officials, for their part, have denied firing live rounds and said they only used tear gas and rubber bullets.

In a video posted online by local rights group Licadho on Wednesday, the footage clearly shows at least two riot police officers facing toward protesters and firing their pistols repeatedly.

In another scene in the Licadho video, police shout at a young man, who claims he is a university student, asking why he is at the scene of the protest.

“I’ll shoot you dead and dump your body,” a police officer tells the young man.

Claims by the government that police were only defending themselves have also been dashed by videos circulated on Facebook showing extreme brutality meted out to unarmed civilians, including monks, by members of the police and military police.

A video titled “Fight, Fight, Fight,” which was posted to YouTube, shows riot police and military police mercilessly beating young men who are offering no form of obvious resistance. Some look like they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—and are paying the price for that in bruises and broken bones.

Accompanying the video is a dance music song titled “Go and hit the others.”

“Brothers why do you behave like that?” the singer asks of the security forces. “No one loves you. You had better do something good instead.”

Kim Mouy Ling, an 11th-grade student in Kompong Cham province, said yesterday that she was stunned when she opened a YouTube video on her iPhone 4 on Wednesday and realized what had happened in Meanchey district.

“It was so shocking, because they beat everyone heavily with sticks and kicked them without forgiveness,” she said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the footage online of the police operation was one-sided, and failed to note the violent acts being committed by the protesters.

Mr. Siphan said the government was unconcerned by critical reports on social media, as the ruling party has “our own system to explain to our people [what really happened].”

“We have our own networks,” he said.

“If the media talks bad about the government that is their choice.”

Indeed, there are many photographs and videos circulating online of the protesters, who had set fire to police vehicles, and monks from the nearby Stung Meanchey pagoda lobbing large chunks of concrete, rocks and bricks at police lines.

Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the local rights group Licadho, said that videos shared over social media were forcing both the CPP and CNRP to account for their actions.

They “must pay great attention to the power of social media be­cause the photos and video footage posted on social media will prove everything—all of the good and bad things about the parties’ activities,” he said, adding that it was not only the urban youth who were benefiting from the new channels of information.

“Most of the old people in rural provinces also know how to access social media because their children teach them to use [smartphones] and watch videos,” Mr. Sam Ath said.

However, Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial monitor for the rights group Adhoc, said that the reach of social media was still limited in many rural areas.

“Most of the people in this remote province [Ratanakkiri] are not able to use social media to follow current events,” he said.

Still, the fact that social media has been so effective in offering an alternative to official government reports has raised concerns among civil society that the government may seek to limit its reach, said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

“The more people use social media, the more people become citizen journalists…the more challenges the CPP will face in trying to control information,” he said.

Khiev Borey, who works for a travel agency along the Thai border in Poipet, said that his Samsung Galaxy smartphone had allowed him to immediately find out what had happened in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

“Social media is playing a very important role in telling us what is the real situation happening around the globe, especially social injustices in Cambodia that have never been broadcast on local television.”

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