As Covid-19 Cases Rise, 17 Arrested Over ‘Fake News’ Internet Posts

6 min read
A printout of Facebook posts shared by Tep Phalla via the account Saty Fila, in this photograph posted to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s Facebook page on March 3, 2020.

At least 17 people have been arrested since January over their unverified claims about Covid-19, criticisms of the government’s outbreak response and other online posts deemed “fake news” by authorities, a human rights organization said on Tuesday.

Four of the five people who have been charged and jailed are members or supporters of the outlawed opposition CNRP, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement. A sixth person was released on bail with charges pending.

They have been accused of crimes including conspiracy, incitement to commit a felony and spreading false information, which carry prison sentences of between six months and 10 years.

Eleven other people — including a 14-year-old girl, a teacher and a phone seller — have been released after signing pledges to refrain from sharing what the government has branded “fake news” about the new viral strain.

Covid-19 has spread to about 200 countries and territories since late December and infected some 387,000 people globally, with more than 16,000 deaths and some 102,000 recoveries.

Cambodia has shuttered schools and entertainment venues, banned religious gatherings, and restricted travel in and out of the country in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

The Health Ministry has confirmed 87 total cases of the respiratory disease, including 52 foreign nationals and 35 Cambodians, as of Tuesday evening. At least two people have recovered and left hospital quarantine.

While no deaths linked to the novel coronavirus in Cambodia have been confirmed by officials, rumors of people dying of the virus have circulated online for months.

Some of these unsubstantiated claims have landed social media users on police’s radar.

Early this month, Tep Phalla, 32, was arrested and questioned by cybercrime and Russei Keo district police officers for allegedly “causing chaos in society” related to false information shared via his Facebook account “Saty Fila,” the Phnom Penh Municipal Police said in a Facebook post.

Phalla was released after issuing a public apology on his own Facebook page, which Phnom Penh police also posted online alongside their statement, Phalla’s photo and a photo of a thumbprinted printout of the offending Facebook posts.

One Facebook comment, which accompanies an article about students fainting at a Siem Reap high school with a photo of an unconscious person, reads: “It is time to announce an emergency and take serious measures.”

In another post, alongside an article about a man who died of a heart attack in a park, which includes an image of what appears to be a dead body covered by a plastic sheet, the user writes: “Corona[virus] in Cambodia is portrayed as fainting. It is not a joke, brothers and sisters. Be careful, especially children when going to school. This country doesn’t accept the truth and also never cares about the suffering of the people.”

Phalla’s Facebook apology said he had “committed a mistake in disseminating untrue information with no clear sources that caused misunderstanding about Covid-19,” while also advising others to get clear information from the Health Ministry’s official Facebook page.

Prime Minister Hun Sen this month said people who spread fake news about Covid-19 were akin to “terrorists.” He has also said that people should fear the dissemination of false information more so than the virus itself.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told VOD earlier this month that five people had been arrested over virus-related posts that caused social chaos, frightened the public, and insulted and put blame on government leaders.

“Those who should be educated, we will have to educate. If they violated what was banned by articles of the law, then we have to enforce the law,” Kim Khoeun said.

‘Ordinary People Might Be Arrested’

Two people are now in jail over social media posts that criticized the government’s response to the viral outbreak, suggesting that authorities had relied on Vietnam for information about people who tested positive for the virus in Cambodia earlier this month.

CNRP supporter Phut Thona, a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap City, was arrested this month and jailed the following day on charges of spreading false information, according to a provincial court order. If convicted, he faces one to two years in prison.

According to HRW, Thona, also known as Lorn Ly, 32, had shared two videos on Facebook in which the speaker claimed the Cambodian government needed information from the Vietnamese government about a visitor to Cambodia who later tested positive for Covid-19.

Another man, Koy Sam Ath, 35, was charged with incitement to commit felony following his arrest in Phnom Penh earlier this month, in relation to thanking Vietnam for uncovering the case of a Japanese national who tested positive for Covid-19 after leaving Cambodia.

In the video, Sam Ath, the accused Facebook user, expresses thanks to Vietnamese people, using a term for Vietnamese that many consider a slur.

“It is lucky that yuon shouted that Cambodia has Covid-19,” he said. “If the ordinary people shout, they might be arrested.”

Sam Ath is now in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.

‘That Will Be a Crime’

Members of the banned CNRP who were jailed over Covid-19-related posts and phone conversations in recent weeks include the head of the party’s youth wing in Prey Veng province’s Preah Sdech district and two senior party members in the same province.

Police arrested Thai Chhor Yoeun in Siem Reap province on March 9 in connection to a post she shared on her Facebook page two days earlier, according to HRW.

“The post she shared alleged that a family in the province had contracted the coronavirus, and warned people to be careful not to get infected,” the rights group said. She was released the same day after signing a document in which she promised not to spread alleged “fake news” about the virus.

In Takeo, Chuong Phearum, 30, was arrested, questioned in court and released after issuing a public apology and pledging not to spread “fake news” again, HRW said.

His Facebook post had claimed that two people had died at a clinic in the province.

In Kampot, a 14-year-old girl was also released by authorities after making a public apology. She had claimed in a Facebook post that three students at her school had been infected with Covid-19, and three people had died from the virus in her province, according to HRW

Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a statement that the government was “misusing” the outbreak to detain opposition activists and others expressing concerns about Covid-19 and the government’s response.

“The government should stop abusing people’s free speech rights and instead focus on providing the public with accurate and timely information about COVID-19,” he said.

However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told VOD that while some speech was protected, expression that was ill-intended was not.

“In human rights principles, expression related to Covid-19 that aims to educate, prevent, advise to avoid the spread, that expression is freedom of expression in accordance with the law,” Malin said.

But he said expression “meant to have ill intentions by posting untrue information, exaggerating and inciting, causing fear with an aim to cause chaos in society, that will be a crime.”

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