PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On March 11, 14-year-old May sent a voice note to a group chat with her classmates in Kampot Province.
“I want to ask all the people of Kampot to please wear your masks properly. Three people have died here already. So everyone needs to protect themselves.”
One of her friends shared the voice note publicly, and it made the rounds on Cambodian social media. The next day, officers turned up at May’s school and took her to the local police station.
Cambodia’s government says it has COVID-19 under control. According to official figures, just 129 people in the country of 16 million have come down with the coronavirus — and none have died.
And as May found out, you’d better not question those numbers.
When they heard what had happened, May’s parents rushed to the police station. “I was shocked and worried. We were in tears. We didn’t know what to do,” her father told VICE News.
To her parents’ intense relief, May was released after being detained by police. They say the officers told them the only reason she was spared jail was her young age. But she wouldn’t be let off with just a warning.
“They said that she is 14 years old and her words were wrong, and could cause damage to society.”
Later that day, the police made May stand up in front of her classmates and teachers to make a public apology for her voice note. The police filmed the apology and uploaded it to Facebook to serve as a warning to others.
May lost many of her friends over the incident, and she has since dropped out of school. She now works in a salon, painting nails.
May had shared an unsubstantiated rumor in a private group. But how much damage can really be done by a 14-year-old girl chatting to her friends?
A lot, according to Cambodia’s authoritarian regime, which in April pushed through an “emergency law” that gives the government sweeping powers in response to the pandemic.
“A 12-year-old child could use a gun to kill anyone,” the government’s official spokesman, Phay Siphan, told VICE News. “It’s almost the same thing. They [both] damage society.”
But it’s not just anxious teenagers being targeted by police for spreading “fake news.” VICE News has determined that since January, the Cambodian authorities have arrested at least 39 people for spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus. Many more have been subjected to public intimidation.
Many are former members of the now-banned opposition party, the CNRP. It was dissolved in 2017, when its leader Sam Rainsy was accused of colluding with the U.S. to overthrow Cambodian Prime MInister Hun Sen, in power for 35 years.
One of those currently detained without bail is Keo Thai, an English teacher and former party official.
There had been previous attempts to arrest him. But COVID-19 finally gave the police something that would stick, says his wife, Sam Chenda.
On March 26, police officers came to their home, without a warrant. They surrounded the house and took Keo Thai away.
“I think there were almost 20 police — at least 15,” Sam Chenda told VICE News. “I was so frightened, I couldn’t count them all.”
It was only after the CNRP’s lawyer arrived, that Keo Thai and his family found out what he was accused of: spreading “fake news” about COVID-19. Later, more charges were added to his rap sheet, including treason.
Keo Thai and at least 10 other former CNRP members are currently being held in pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison.
They haven’t been allowed to see their families or even speak to them on the phone. Conditions in the prison are dire: Prey Sar is known for its overcrowding, and Amnesty International has called Cambodia’s correctional facilities a “ticking time-bomb” for COVID-19.
Phay Siphan claims the arrests of CNRP members have nothing to do with politics: “We don’t think in terms of opposition parties; we are only concerned about fake news.”
But Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, told VICE News that she is “concerned at the number of arrests being reported, and the range of criminal code provisions which are invoked to curtail freedom of expression.”
Cambodia is just one of at least 30 countries using tools like these to repress their citizens. Similar steps are being taken by other governments, including Venezuela to Bolivia. When the world finally starts to come out of the pandemic, millions of people around the globe living under authoritarian regimes like Cambodia’s will emerge with less freedoms than they had before.
Cover: VICE News’ Hind Hassan speaks with Sam Chenda, whose husband is currently being detained without bail. (Daniel Bateman, VICE News)