Ministry Calls for Action Against Virus Misinformation Spread Online

5 min read
Chinese man Jia Jianhua, who had tested positive for novel coronavirus in January, gestures after being discharged from quarantine at Preah Sihanouk provincial hospital, in this photograph posted to the Health Ministry’s Communicable Disease Control Department’s Facebook page on February 10, 2020.
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UPDATE 7:35 p.m. — The Information Ministry has appealed to authorities to take unspecified legal action against Facebook accounts that post false information, or “fake news,” about the respiratory disease Covid-19, which has spread to more than 60 nations.

The ministry request was made on Sunday after posts from several Facebook accounts claimed that foreigners had died in Cambodia due to Covid-19 infections, which the government said was not true.

The ministry said in a statement that authorities should take legal action and reject “false information” posted on seven Facebook accounts, identified by the names Sdam Husen, Sovannara Som, Koun Neak Akhoengsa Sva.r, Samlengpolakorchangbankaphlaspdo, Soem Sophea, Ah Song Ha and Rithyvong Long. 

The statement did not say what kind of legal action the ministry wanted authorities to take.

On Sunday, the Facebook account Soem Sophea shared a 30-second video clip showing a person lying on a tiled floor.

A post accompanying the video says “a Chinese man is shaking and fell at a casino in Bavet City,” on the Cambodia-Vietnam border in Svay Rieng province.

“If Mr. Hun Sen wants to say [the man] is fainting, [he] has to show medical evidence from an independent establishment so the people will no longer have doubt,” the post says, referring to the prime minister.

In a speech on Monday, Hun Sen asked the public to help the government in its fight against the spread of false information about Covid-19.

“Each [of us] must be an activist resisting fake news,” the premier said, adding that people should not panic if Cambodia does see cases of the virus.

Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn told VOD that individuals publishing false information online could be punished “according to the existing law,” although he did not specify which laws may have been violated by accused Facebook users.

Asked if the ministry or other authorities had identified those behind the seven Facebook accounts, or found any others broadcasting similar misinformation, Sophorn said they were working on it.

Soeng Senkaruna, spokesman for human rights group Adhoc, said he supported the ministry’s move to weed out fake news, but expressed concerns that critical Facebook accounts that make true statements could face legal action in violation of users’ free speech rights.

“Taking action against information pollution is not wrong, but we are worried that the release of certain information that has a clear source, but becomes the subject of [government] action, we think that will be a restriction of freedom of expression,” Senkaruna said.

More than 89,000 infections and over 3,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 have been documented globally, the majority in mainland China, where the viral strain was first detected in late December, according to data from the U.S., E.U., China and World Health Organization (WHO) compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Cambodia has confirmed just one case of Covid-19, a Chinese man who was released from hospital quarantine last month after he recovered.

South Korea has confirmed more than 4,200 cases; Singapore, more than 100; Thailand, 43; Vietnam, 16; and Laos and Myanmar, none. Indonesia confirmed its first two cases of the virus on Monday.

In a study published last month, researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health raised questions about the fewer-than-expected number of confirmed cases in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, given air travel volume estimates between the countries and the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first identified.

Marc Lipsitch, director of Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics and one of the study’s authors, told Time that the three countries weren’t just getting lucky.

“They’re missing infections,” he said.

As of Sunday, 92 people have tested negative for Covid-19, the government’s Communicable Disease Control (CDC) Department said in a post on their Facebook page.

In mid-February, Health Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine told VOD that about 70 to 80 people had been tested for the novel coronavirus in Cambodia since January 10, including 20 people aboard a luxury cruise ship, which had docked at Sihanoukville after being turned away by other ports due to fears that people on board were infected with the virus.

Vandine estimated some 11 to 20 Cambodians had been tested, while the rest were foreigners, mostly from China.

Pasteur Institute of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, which has conducted the Covid-19 testing, said in a statement last week that after 20 swab samples were take from symptomatic individuals aboard the Westerdam cruise ship, it took another 1,580 samples from passengers and crew who were not showing symptoms.

Besides the cruise ship testing, as of February 25, Pasteur had received 61 samples of “suspected cases” and 11 samples from “close contacts,” according to the statement.

Pasteur said all tests have been negative, except the Chinese man who was visiting Cambodia from Wuhan.

Global risk analysts at Verisk Maplecroft say Cambodia and Indonesia face the possibility of “extreme risk” based on the countries’ ability to respond to a pandemic.

Dr. Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Duke University, told VOD that he understood Cambodia had been “slow to shut off travel with China and that testing of people who might meet a case definition for suspected novel coronavirus infection elsewhere is sparse in Cambodia.”

“If true, I suspect the people of Cambodia are going to suffer difficult to control large outbreaks of novel coronavirus in the very near future,” Gray said in an email last month. “With such lack on controls on the virus, the virus is likely to have already seeded large, dense populations in major cities where it will spread rapidly between people.”

UPDATE 7:35 p.m. — As of Monday afternoon, 135 people have tested negative for Covid-19 in Cambodia, not including the Westerdam passengers and crew members who were tested last month, according to a Health Ministry statement.

Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine told VOD on Monday evening that more doctors had referred patients who showed symptoms which warranted Covid-19 testing, but there was “no specific reason” why 43 more people were tested since the ministry’s CDC said on Sunday that 92 people had been tested up to that point.

Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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