Tharum Bun

A digital strategist and pioneer of Cambodia's blogosphere

TV will die; long live Facebook: Cambodia

Cambodia’s general elections in 2013 was touted as the first Facebook election by Cambodians. Citizens flocked to the social networking site for all things (news stories, commentaries, even rumours) election, shared from media outlets as well as citizen themselves. Main opposition party leveraged the powerful platform Facebook to garner support from the young population.

Fast forward to the 2018 general elections, all political parties will engage with citizens via their smartphone screen, not TV. Facebook Page by politicians will become the primary news sources for the public and news reporters.

Some selected examples:
PM launches personal attack on Rainsy: The Phnom Penh Post
“Hun Sen blasted the CNRP leader in videos and text posted on his Facebook page, and warned of possible legal action against the opposition’s leadership.”

With 1M ‘Likes,’ PM Says Facebook Page Is His: The Cambodia Daily
“With the growth in followers, Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet released a short statement on Sunday night confirming Mr. Hun Sen is an avid user of social media—and, for the first time, clarifying that the page does belong to him.”

This live video from Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s residence, posted on Facebook on 12 November, received more than 230k views with nearly 10k shares. While this archived video shared (on 17 November 2015) by Cambodia’s opposition party leader Sam Rainsy has been viewed more than 293k times.

To gain an in-depth understanding of the power of social networks, I’d recommend that you read The Circle, a novel by American author Dave Eggers.

“I understand that we’re obligated, as humans, to share what we see and know. And that all knowledge must be democratically accessible,” Mae Holland, a young woman starting a new job at an all-powerful Silicon Valley company called The Circle. Set in the near future, The Circle is the spiritual and business heir to our times, a mashup of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and PayPal.

Related: 12 reasons why Facebook is Cambodia’s most favorite site

When a kid meets a robot: what’s the first question?


ហើយ​បុរស​ម្នាក់​នៅ​ក្នុង​ពេល​វេលា​របស់​គាត់​ គាត់ដើរតួច្រើន
សកម្មភាព​របស់​គាត់មានប្រាំពីរ​ដំណាក់កាល​។ នៅ​ដំបូងឡើយជា​ទារក​ យំផងក្អែរផងក្នុង​ដៃ​របស់​គិលានុបដ្ឋាយិកា​។

បន្ទាប់មកជាកូនសិស្សបុិនយំ ជាមួយនឹងកាតាប
ហើយជាមួយនឹងទឹក​មុខដ៏ស្រស់ថ្លាពេលព្រឹក ធ្វើដំណើរ​ដូច​ជា​ខ្យង

ហើយ​បន្ទាប់​មក​ ក្លាយអ្នកចេះមានសេចក្តីស្នេហា
ដកដង្ហើមធំ​ដូចជា​គុក​ភ្លើង​ ជាមួយ​នឹង​ការ​និទាន​សង្វេគ

ពោរពេញទៅដោយ​ការ​ស្បថ​ស្បែរចម្លែកៗ និងទុក​ពុកចង្កា​ដូច​ជា​ខ្លារខិន
​ច្រណែន​ឈ្នានីសរឿង​កិត្តិយស​ ងាយក្នុង​ការ​ឈ្លោះ​ប្រកែក​គ្នា​
សូម្បី​តែ​គ្រោះថ្នាក់ ហើយនិងមិនបានស្ថិតស្ថេរ។

ហើយ​បន្ទាប់​មក​ គឺភាពយុត្តិធ៌ម
ជាមួយនឹង​ក្បាលពោះ​មូលល្មម និងសម្បូរអាហារបរិភាគ
ជាមួយ​នឹង​ភ្នែក​ធ្ងន់ ​និង​ពុកចង្កា​រ​កោរស្អាតជាផ្លូវការ
ពោរពេញទៅដោយ​ដំបូន្មានវ័យឆ្លាត ផ្សំនឹងមេរៀនទាន់សម័យ

ត្រឡប់មកភាពដើម ប្រៀបបាននឹងសម្បកនៃខ្លួនវិញ
មានវ៉ែនតាលើខ្ទង់ច្រមុះ និងស្បែករយាក
សម្លៀកបំពាក់គាត់ពីមុន ប្រែជាទូលាយ
ជើងរួមតូច ​សំឡេង​មាំជាបុរស

គឺ​ជា​លើក​ទី​ពីរនៃភាពជាកូនក្មេង ​និងលែងដឹងអ្វីហើយ
អស់ធ្មេញ ​ភ្នែកងងឹត បរិភាគគ្មាន​រសជាតិ​ អស់អ្វី​ទាំងអស់​។

As translated from As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world’s a stage

William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616 by Tharum Bun.

Photographed by Tharum Bun
Photographed by Tharum Bun

The Phnom Penh Post: ‘Pitfalls ahead’ for web freedom, report finds

While Cambodia lacks a “rigorous, systematic approach to internet censorship”, new programs regulating telecommunications, online expression and cybercrime threaten the relative freedom it currently enjoys, according to a new report.

The Freedom on the Net 2015 report, released on Friday by American watchdog organisation Freedom House, assigned the Kingdom a ranking of “partly free” – the same status it has held for the past two years – based on the criteria of “obstacles to access”, “limits on content” and “violations of user rights”.

Cambodia was ranked 38th out of the 65 countries surveyed, with a score of 48 out of 100, with zero being the best possible score.

The report highlights a still-unapproved telecommunications law drafted in 2014 that would impose sweeping controls on the sector for the purposes of “effective security, national stability and public order”, potentially leaving the door open for censorship.

Last year also saw the announcement of a Ministry of Information program aimed at restricting the online publishing of “immoral content”.

When asked yesterday as to whether any content had been targeted on these grounds, Ministry of Information spokesman Ouk Kimseng stated, “We don’t have any restrictions at all.”

Another draft law revealed in 2014 would impose severe penalties on a variety of broadly defined cybercrimes committed through telecommunications networks.

That bill now appears off the table, but observers fear that a new anti-cybercrime department created by the Interior Ministry this September may herald a crackdown on online expression.

Government officials declined or were unavailable to comment yesterday on the enforcement of cybercrime laws.

Although government regulation of online activity has not yet tangibly increased, NGOs and analysts have raised fears that these new measures are steps toward a less-free internet for Cambodia.

Internet freedom is subject to “mood swings of the government and ruling party”, said political blogger Ou Ritthy, pointing to article 28 of the draft cybercrime law, a broadly worded section that would criminalise content that would “hinder sovereignty,” “slander” the government or “incite the population.”

The provision is clearly intended to “restrict freedom of expression and dissemination of information online, especially with regard to political issues,” he said.

Tharum Bun, a blogger and digital strategist, thinks the future is uncertain for internet freedom in Cambodia.

“We’ll have to wait and see in a couple of years, especially just ahead of the upcoming national elections in 2018,” he said.

Grassroots online advocacy has influenced a number of recent major news events, the report finds, including the 2013 national elections and the investigation of the December 2014 murder of business tycoon Ung Meng Chue.

But according to Ritthy, many activists now practice self-censorship on social media in order to avoid scrutiny from a government that seeks to “punish … those who have different or opposite opinions.”

While these concerns remain moot for many Cambodians, with nationwide internet penetration still at just 9 per cent, Tharum believes that the increasing availability of cheap smartphones will “light up and connect Cambodia’s most rural parts.”

In fact, 19 per cent of Cambodians already browse the web on their smartphones, bypassing poor internet infrastructure and unreliable electricity in many areas of the country.

On a positive note, the report praises Cambodians’ access to “unbiased information” from web and social media-based news sources, though Freedom House’s separate Freedom of the Press report for this year rated the Kingdom’s overall press environment “not free”.

‘Pitfalls ahead’ for web freedom, report finds, by Daniel Nass, was first appeared in The Phnom Penh Post on Tue, 3 November 2015.

Post Weekend: Amateur sleuths take investigation to Facebook

Online, crowd-sourced initiatives to identify National Assembly assault suspects suggest an element of distrust in the authorities

lmost immediately after the assault of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly on Monday, an investigation was launched. But this one was not being undertaken by the police.

After the majority of participants in a morning protest against opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha dispersed, opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sakphea were dragged out of their cars and viciously beaten by groups of men, some wearing helmets or kramas over their faces.

Images from the event, scrawled with Khmer text, speech bubbles and hand-drawn arrows, were soon being shared widely on Facebook. Using photos and videos of the protest and from the later attacks, a crowd of anonymous amateur social media detectives were attempting to find proof of the suspects’ identities.

Shared and re-shared hundreds and even thousands of times over by individual profiles and public pages, the photos were difficult to track to their original sources.

One set of images, credited to the page Khmer Chealy, suggested that a man photographed in the crowd during the protest was the same person later seen stomping on CNRP lawmaker Chamroeun’s chest. The link? Similar clothes, a green scarf tied to his waist and a pair of white sneakers.

Ou Ritthy, blogger and co-founder of Politikoffee, a youth discussion forum, said most young Cambodians did not trust the police to investigate the incident properly.

He said that the volume of photos from the protest should make identifying suspects “obvious”, but he had seen official investigative work hit a dead end in similar cases.

He said Cambodia had a “culture of immunity”.

“The public always investigates [better than the authorities] and announce on social media,” he said.

An individual manning the inbox for the page of the Khmer-language website Social Breaking News (SBN) — which shared some of the images — said: “I believe what we posted … people trust [in] us. Besides, young people who use social media always support us to take any news.”

In Cambodia’s recent past, social media has proven useful in pressuring the authorities to act.

Khoun Theara, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, pointed to the case of Sok Bun. In July, a leaked video of the real-estate magnate’s beating of a local TV presenter resulted in widespread outrage on social media. Days later, Bun was arrested.

But the nature of the internet renders information published on social media quite permanent, while often leaving the identity of those posting it uncertain.

In Cambodia, where users feel at risk of being charged with defamation or disinformation for online activity, anonymity is the most common modus operandi. By Friday, some of the individual accounts associated with the images had already been removed.

And a climate of anonymity also leaves plenty of room for errors.

“When it comes to sensitive news, social media users should ask some basic questions before posting or sharing rather than remaining anonymous,” Theara said. “Is there enough evidence weighted behind the news? Is the news credible and logical?”

Worldwide, social media sleuths have become fairly common — and active — participants in investigations, especially following crimes committed in public.

After both the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the bombing in Bangkok this August, crowdsourced efforts almost immediately identified suspects from surveillance footage.

In both incidents, the crowd turned out to be wrong.

The harassment and stigma that comes with being identified online as a suspect is in itself a form of punishment, noted Daniel Trottier, a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam who studies social media policing.

These “detectives” also often don’t have an easy relationship with the police.

“There is risk that such crowdsourcing ends up undermining perceptions of authority, while at the same time reproducing some of the worst abuses of the state,” Trottier said.

Nonetheless, crowd-sourced investigative work can prove invaluable.

Consider the case of Bellingcat, an open-source site that seeks to bring together analysts and “citizen investigative journalists”. Its work on the Malaysian Airlines flight downed over Ukraine in July 2014 was used by the Dutch police in their own investigation of the crash.

“When we’ve worked with crowd-sourced information, two things are very important: one is verifying the information; the other is making sure every assumption is backed up,” Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder, wrote in an email. “There’s a real risk of crowd-sourcing leading to mob justice.”

Higgins also noted the significant traffic on the site to articles translated into Russian. He sees a desire for more detailed information about the events from those who can’t get it from elsewhere because the government controls their mass media.

In Cambodia, some argue that it is this kind of distrust in traditional institutions that drives people to Facebook for sensitive information about events like Monday’s violence.

“As independent media isn’t as strong as it’s supposed to be, people here [look] for alternative sources,” said Tharum Bun, a blogger and digital strategist.

Bun acknowledges that the newfound power of social media can be a “two-edged knife”, with a risk for misidentification or even mob justice, but suggested that, in cases like the MPs’ bashing, it fills a unique niche.

“Social media came late into the game, but it has its super strength: news by the citizens, for the citizens,” he said.

This article, written by Audrey Wilson (with additional reporting by Vandy Muong), was first appeared in the Post Weekend on October 31, 2015.

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