Threatened by disinformation, a monk flees Cambodia

Frame-up:Facebook has been criticised for being too slow in removing problematic accounts and pages.NYTOMAR HAVANA  

In just four days, the reputation of a Buddhist monk who had spent decades fighting for the human rights of Cambodians was destroyed.

First, grainy videos appeared on a fake Facebook page, claiming that he had slept with three sisters and their mother. Then a government-controlled religious council defrocked the monk for having violated Buddhist precepts of celibacy. Fearing imminent arrest, the monk fled Cambodia, destined for a life in exile, like so many people who have stood up to Asia’s longest-governing leader.

The monk, Luon Sovath, was the victim of a smear campaign this summer that relied on fake claims and hastily assembled social media accounts designed to discredit an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian policies. A New York Times investigation found evidence that government employees were involved in the creation and posting of the videos on Facebook.

Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian government has repeatedly used falsified Facebook posts or manipulated audio to defame and imprison politicians, activists and other human rights defenders.

Facebook has come under fire in the U.S. for disseminating hate speech and disinformation. It has been criticised for failing to detect Russian influence in the 2016 election.

But its influence is even greater in places like Cambodia, where the social media platform is the only digital interface for millions of people. Since civil liberties are often constricted in such countries, Facebook can be a powerful tool for autocrats to bolster their grip on the state, even as it provides a rare space for free expression and activism.

During his nearly 35-year rule, Hun Sen — a one-time soldier for the genocidal Khmer Rouge — has decimated Cambodia’s political opposition. He has cozied up to China, eschewing aid from the West that was conditioned on improving human rights. Many high-profile activists and opposition politicians have been assassinated, their cases rarely investigated properly.

As scandals proliferate on its platform, Facebook has been criticised for being too slow in removing problematic accounts and pages, many fake. It took almost a month for Facebook to take down the page on which the videos smearing the monk first aired. “As a company, you would think they would want to be more vigilant and not allow their platform to be misused,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. “Facebook’s reaction has been like little drops from a sink, so late and so little.”

Better monitoring

In a statement to The Times about Mr. Luon Sovath’s case, Facebook said that it had built up a team in Cambodia to better monitor the local situation. “We recognise the important role that Facebook plays in enabling expression in Cambodia,” the company said. “We want people to feel safe when they’re using our platform, which is why we take reports of impersonation and other violations of our community standards seriously.”

Last month, Mr. Luon Sovath, who is now in Switzerland after receiving a humanitarian visa, was charged in absentia by prosecutors in Siem Reap province with raping one of the sisters, escalating the accusations in the videos.

The sex charges against Mr. Luon Sovath, one of Cambodia’s most celebrated activist monks, went viral.

Mr. Luon Sovath has denied the rape charges, and accusations that he had sexual relations with any of the women.NY Times