Fact-Check Platform Questioned Over Maiden Post Critiquing Rights Group’s Concerns

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A customer at Boeng Keng Kang market scans the Stop Covid-19 QR code before entering during a limited reopening on May 24, 2021. (Tran Techseng/VOD)

A new U.S.-funded fact-checking outlet for Cambodia has been challenged over methodology and an apparent email mishap in its first published assessment: that an international rights organization’s claims of concern over the government’s Covid-19 QR-code tracking system were “false.”

CambodiaCheck, an online fact-checking platform run by the Asia Foundation and the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, was launched Tuesday with an online press conference. Its first and only fact-checked post centers on an April statement made by the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch.

CambodiaCheck questions Human Rights Watch’s statement: that Stop Covid — the QR code system placed at businesses across the country to track those who test positive for Covid-19 — is “ripe for rights abuses” given the Cambodian government’s track record of surveilling individuals. The fact-checking assessment, posted Monday, argues that the “application” does not ask for phones’ location data, it is voluntary, and Human Rights Watch did not provide any additional evidence. The rights group’s claim “is deemed to be false,” CambodiaCheck says.

In a written statement to VOD, Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, who is quoted in the rights group’s statement about the QR code system, said Human Rights Watch “unequivocally rejects CambodiaCheck’s characterization of our findings,” citing an analysis of mobile location tracking data the organization posted in May 2020. The statement was meant to recommend less intrusive methods of tracking potential Covid-19 outbreaks, such as writing names and phone numbers on paper, Robertson said.

“CambodiaCheck’s methodology of comparing the Cambodian QR Code system with another country’s system that is clearly more intrusive and raises many human rights concerns (such as the system currently used in Brunei) does not justify an automatic conclusion that there are no risks of rights infringement in the Cambodian system,” he said. “Instead, each country’s measures should be assessed against international human rights standards and the government’s obligation to promote and protect the rights of its citizens.”

When asked about Human Rights Watch’s retort, Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow for the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace who helped develop the platform’s methodology, said that the fact-checking researcher, whom he would not name, did not take examples of government surveillance of dissidents into account because there was not demonstrated evidence that those crackdowns were connected to the Stop Covid program. 

“Prior evidence is not indicative of future action, and evidence for the current claim was not provided, making the claim speculative, ultimately,” he said.

When asked why this claim was chosen for its first assessment, Murg said the organization conducted an informal survey, particularly among young people, who said they wanted to know more about the veracity of Covid-19 information in Cambodia, and the Human Rights Watch statement received traction on social media. Robertson, in his response, noted that the platform’s selection of Human Rights Watch, rather than one of the state-run or government-aligned media outlets, was a “revealing choice.” Murg said the fact-checker’s focus was on the claim rather than who made it.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s any malintention by Human Rights Watch whatsoever, and we certainly don’t imply that,” he said.

Murg added that the platform’s core principles were “about objectivity not subjectivity, so when we fact-checked that, it’s about the claim, not about the person and not about the entity itself. It’s simply about the claim.”

Murg said that the fact-checking researcher reached out to the health and telecommunications ministries and did not receive any response, while Robertson said his enquiries to the Telecommunications Ministry also went unanswered.

While Robertson said that neither he nor Human Rights Watch’s Asia division received an email about the fact-checking initiative, Murg responded that an academic researcher working for CambodiaCheck had emailed Robertson in late May.

VOD reviewed an email provided by Murg. The email address that the researcher used is not Robertson’s email, containing what appears to be a typo. Murg said the researcher received no notification that the address did not exist.

Robertson’s email is not listed under his biography on Human Rights Watch’s website, but it can be found in articles on the website from 2012 and 2014 and in a tweet from 2018.

The email, sent on May 28 at 10 a.m., says the platform would like to fact-check one of Robertson’s quotes in a Human Rights Watch statement that the Stop Covid QR program is “ripe for rights abuses” and his reference to “the government’s stepped-up online surveillance of Cambodians since the outset of the pandemic.”

The researcher, whose name was redacted by Murg, writes in the email that they would like to “ensure all the presented data from the Fact Checking are relevant, honest, and truthful,” and asks if Robertson would like to provide more information or context about the quote.

Speaking to VOD by phone, Murg added that he had not received any response from Human Rights Watch since the Tuesday morning launch but would be keen to review or revise the assessment if the fact-checking outlet received new, relevant information.

Murg, a consultant for the institute, said CambodiaCheck was still in its pilot phase, planning to release an article a week for the next five weeks. He noted that the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace was interested in focusing on foreign policy claims ahead of Cambodia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2022. Though any claim could be checked, the outlet would be watching for observers reporting on the country from outside its borders, he said.

“One of the fears is there will be a significant number of reports on Cambodia that are not from Cambodia,” he said. “With Covid-19 travel restrictions [continuing] as people are talking about Cambodia next year, we could be in for a number of articles that are not from folks on the ground,” adding that reports from outside the country can often be “empirically false.”

Murg said the organization was the first of its kind in the country. However, the Women’s Media Center has also established a fact-checking organization in Khmer called CrossCheck.

Ith Serey Vatthanak, a CrossCheck fact-checking reporter, said the Women’s Media Center bases its assessments — about topics that have ranged from Covid-19 vaccines to ATM theft — on gathering all available information online, contacting ministries and searching for additional sources, such as university professors.

CrossCheck publishes about five articles a week, Serey Vatthanak said, but the platform stays away from subjects like politics and those that could “harm social order.” However, Covid-19 has also been a focus of the organization, he said, adding that CrossCheck has tried to dispel or diminish rumors based on what its fact-checkers can find online.

“Last year, when Covid-19 became very trendy [on social media], people really believed that Covid is super dangerous and there was a lot of disinformation about Covid and also the effects,” he said.

CrossCheck also received funding from USAID, according to a quarterly report from the U.S. development agency’s “Cambodian Civil Society Strengthening Project.” And unlike CambodiaCheck, whose researchers are academics, CrossCheck is made up of journalists working as fact-checkers.

“Sometimes we cannot prove [the claim] because we’re not scientists, we are not politicians, we don’t know if it’s disinformation,” Serey Vatthanak said. “A couple months ago, there was news that the Chinese vaccines were harmful to public health, Cambodian citizens shouldn’t vaccinate. … We did a fact-check at that time, and we couldn’t prove it’s 100 percent true. Even international news organizations cannot prove [if] it’s true or disinformation. We can only say that it’s around 50 percent effective” at preventing the effects of Covid-19, he said.

Updated at 9:26 p.m. with comment from Murg that the researcher did not receive a notification that the email address did not exist.

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