A series of explosive articles by Fresh News accusing journalists, NGO leaders, a US Embassy staffer and members of the opposition leader’s family of being part of a conspiracy to topple the government suggests the media outlet, long known as a government mouthpiece, is now being used as a weapon against government critics, analysts say.
As of yesterday evening, the stories – which contained no corroborating evidence or named sources, and which the targeted journalist Geoffrey Cain termed a “fabrication” – were being picked up by other Cambodian media outlets, many of which are also supportive of the ruling party.
Seemingly based on little more than innocuous Facebook photos, the dire warnings of conspiracy and “colour revolution” bore more than a passing resemblance to the rhetoric espoused by high-ranking ruling party officials in the lead-up to next year’s hotly anticipated national elections.
Since Thursday, Fresh News has republished several posts from a Facebook account named “Kon Khmer” describing a seemingly fantastical US-backed plot to overthrow the government involving the CIA, NGOs, journalists, the US Embassy and the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Party President Kem Sokha yesterday rejected out of hand the “smear” campaign in a Facebook post.
Several individuals are named in the posts and shown in photos gleaned from their Facebook accounts, linking them with the daughters of Sokha, Kem Samathida and Kem Monovithya. The latter is accused of working for the CIA.
Freelance journalist Geoffrey Cain is referred to as “another foreign spy” in one article, which also mentions James Ricketson, an Australian filmmaker charged with espionage offences after flying a drone above a CNRP election rally in June.
Cain, whom the post claims conspired to topple former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, said the “total fabrication” was “creative”, but “alarming”.
“I was incredibly alarmed because they had placed me in the company of James Ricketson, who is now facing espionage charges,” said Cain, who lived in Cambodia almost 10 years ago but has since primarily focused on the Korean Peninsula.
“This is a campaign to discredit the opposition, I’m just a casualty of war . . . I have limited involvement in Cambodia. Just the fact they would take my Korean reporting and try to spin it into this conspiracy to overthrow the Korean government shows how paranoid they are.”
Other groups and individuals named include Jackson Cox, former director of the International Republican Institute; Sam Downing, a US Embassy official whom the article claims has a “political marriage” to Monovithya; the Serbia-based Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, an NGO that promotes nonviolent protest movements; and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. All were either unreachable or declined to comment.
The articles come in the thick of an apparent government clampdown on critical media and NGOs, with several radio stations booted off the air and the English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily threatened with imminent closure over a purported $6.3 million tax bill. The National Democratic Institute was also recently kicked out of the country.
Political analyst Ou Virak said calling out individuals by name created a “dangerous” situation, and would also have a chilling effect on free speech.
He said the government was “pushing key critics back pre-emptively” via Fresh News in order to give themselves a degree of separation, noting the Daily’s tax bill was also published by the site after emerging on Facebook.
“For a Cambodian, being accused of working for the CIA, that would send chills up their spine,” Virak added, noting that the unsubstantiated accusation was a favourite pretext of the Khmer Rouge for executing “enemies”. “The Khmer Rouge took place a long time ago but that remains in the national psyche.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, yesterday called the stories a troubling “escalation in the volume of these conspiracy theories”.
“We’ve seen these theories dialed up to a shrieking pitch. The elaboration of these connections between a foreign journalist, members of IRI and the US State Department, and members of the opposition represents a significant escalation in the rhetoric by actually naming individuals,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time a foreign journalist was accused of being a foreign spy before James Ricketson’s arrest.”
Another observer, who requested anonymity, said that the stories represented the “next level” in a CPP campaign to remove obstacles ahead of next year’s national election.
“The CPP is ready to stand up against the US. Sure, the few responses by the US were strong, but in terms of rhetoric, not action. From the CPP, it’s not just rhetoric, but action,” they said. “Fresh News is a political instrument for Hun Sen. It’s very interesting to read it to know what Hun Sen is thinking, and of course we call it media, but it is propaganda.”
However, Fresh News founder Lim Cheavutha denied there was any outside direction to run the stories. “This publication is my institution, and there are not any officials or family of the leaders who have instructed me to publish them,” he said, claiming publishing the Facebook posts was no different from WikiLeak’s release of internal US government documents, despite the fact that no such documents accompanied the posts.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan also rejected the suggestion of any official involvement, and said the government had “no position” on the articles and would wait to see if the claims were “true or false”.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said whether Fresh News were “wild-eyed conspiracy theorists” or were “just reprinting whatever the government’s propagandists hand them”, the use of “big lie” tactics reflected the charged political landscape. “If any news outlet dared to voice similarly false things about Hun Sen and the CPP, the reporters and editors would already be in jail.”