Coronavirus ‘Fake News’ Arrests Are Quieting Critics

In Southeast Asia, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a handy excuse for a clampdown on free speech.

A 14-year-old in Kampot, Cambodia, was detained and forced by police to publicly apologize after expressing fear about the coronavirus in a Facebook message. A Siem Reap man was arrested after posting social media videos criticizing Cambodia’s lackluster coronavirus testing. Altogether, dozens of Cambodians have been arrested in recent weeks after being accused of spreading fake news about COVID-19, released only after signing apology documents. Among those still in jail are four members of the banned opposition party. Lumping together criticism with misinformation, Prime Minister Hun Sen has branded those “who spread fake news” as “terrorists.”

The Cambodian cases are part of a broader trend of Southeast Asian governments using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on free speech. As the coronavirus continues to spread across the region, governments have adopted new measures, including emergency decrees, to slow the rate of infections. These efforts—while crucial to protect public health—have been accompanied by sweeping free speech restrictions under the pretext of combating the spread of false information and maintaining public order.

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