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Cambodian opposition leader brings Facebook battle to California court

Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING – Cambodia is sliding into dictatorship, and it's playing out on Facebook.

The country's government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has purchased millions of fake "likes" on the platform, used it to silence critics and spread propaganda, opponents say.

On Thursday morning, former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy's lawyers filed a petition in a Northern California court that could shed light on this behavior, raising questions about the social media giant's possible role in bolstering an authoritarian government.

"Human rights are being ignored and our electoral system is in shambles," said Sam, 68, who lives in exile in France. "By exposing facts now in the possession of Facebook, we will be able to place real evidence before courts in Cambodia and possibly elsewhere. When facing irrefutable evidence, even a dictator will have to backtrack."

The Cambodian government has charged Sam in several politically tinged cases, at least four of which concern content he has posted to Facebook. Sam's petition "seeks information in Facebook's possession regarding Hun Sen's misuse of social media to deceive Cambodia's electorate and to commit human rights abuses," according to a statement by the San Francisco-based law firm BraunHagey and Borden, which is representing Sam.

Facebook did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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Since Hun Sen ascended to the Cambodian government's highest levels in the late '70s, he has established a reputation as a tough leader with a low tolerance for dissent. With a national election scheduled for July, his government has, in recent months, shuttered Western nonprofit agencies, prosecuted scores of activists and hobbled the country's independent press. In November, Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the country's only opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which Sam had led until last year.

Sam's successor, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September for alleged treason. Several other party leaders have fled abroad or gone into hiding.

Cambodians once regarded Facebook as an injection of transparency in the long-authoritarian state. The CNRP used the platform to communicate directly with voters in a 2013 national election, precipitating protests and winning it a significant number of seats.

Yet as the platform grows more influential in the country, authorities have increasingly co-opted it to spread propaganda and silence critics. According to a 2017 report, 4.5 million people in the country are connected to Facebook, and more than half use the platform every day; many use it as their sole source of news.

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