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Threatened by Facebook Disinformation, a Monk Flees Cambodia

2020-08-23 07:00:13
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BANGKOK — 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.

His downfall shows how repressive governments can move with stunning speed to disgrace their opponents, using social media and technology to amplify their divisive campaigns. 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.

“As a company, you would think they would want to be more vigilant and not allow their platform to be misused,” said Naly Pilorge, the 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.”

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 recognize 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. Copies of the videos, which purported to show Facebook Messenger calls between the monk and some of the women, were shared widely on the social media platform.

He has denied the rape charges, along with accusations that he had sexual relations with any of the women.

Clues in the videos, uncovered by The Times, also undercut the claims.

An analysis found split-second footage in which key personal information of two government employees briefly flashes onscreen. The employees work for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, a propaganda arm of the Cambodian cabinet.

The videos were uploaded on a Facebook page that assumed the identity of one of the sisters, Tim Ratha, who denied both ownership of the page and any sexual relationship with the monk. The page was created the day the videos were posted and lifted photographs from the sister’s real Facebook account.

A fake Facebook account in the monk’s name was also linked to the videos. It, too, stole images from Mr. Luon Sovath’s real account and was established one day before the videos came out.

“I want to say to Facebook, you should help to restore and defend human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” Mr. Luon Sovath said.

“He is a good and respectful monk,” Ms. Tim Ratha said in an interview.

Shortly after the videos appeared on Facebook, the police in Siem Reap demanded Ms. Tim Ratha report to the station at night, she said.

Their questions were rapid-fire and intimidating, she said. Why would you have a sexual relationship with a monk, with your sisters and mother no less? What is your Facebook password? That’s your phone, isn’t it?

Ms. Tim Ratha denied everything, even as her voice was shaking from fear, she recalled.

“We are just victims,” she said. “We didn’t commit anything wrong.”

The four videos consist of nothing more than fuzzy footage of smartphones with the monk’s fake Facebook profile on the screens. Audio seems to emanate from the phones, as if he is chatting with the women on Messenger.

At two points the videos go off script. In one instance, the thumb holding the phone slips for less than a second and pulls up a list of Facebook Messenger friends.

Two are brothers of Yeng Sreypoch, one of the employees of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit. Another is her relative and two more are friends from her hometown.

In another video, an online notification from Telegram, the messaging application, appears for a moment, delivered to an account user named “sopheapm.” That name is used on Telegram by Miech Sopheap, the other employee.

Ms. Miech Sopheap and Ms. Yeng Sreypoch declined repeated requests for comment. They are two of the three “friends” of the fake Facebook account in Mr. Luon Sovath’s name.

Tith Sothea, the head of the unit, said in a statement that his office had nothing to do with the videos.

“I fervently deny the allegation and the smearing, fabricating,” he said, “that the Press and Quick Reaction Unit set up a Facebook to post alleged videos.”

When Mr. Tith Sothea took up his job in 2018, local news media said his unit was to “carry out media work and react to content with a negative character coming from national and international media.”

The Press and Quick Reaction Unit employs a “cyber war team.”

Facebook said that it took down the fake page where the videos appeared on June 27, after a trusted partner reported its existence. Human Rights Watch acknowledged it was that partner.

Initially, Facebook said that it had punished the creator of the fake Facebook page by removing the administrator’s account. After The Times pointed out that there were two other administrators of the page, Facebook said that their accounts were suspended pending further verification.

The conversations in the videos are purportedly between Mr. Luon Sovath and Ms. Tim Ratha or Som Bopha, her mother. There are a few sexually suggestive references, including an aside about licking.

The monk and the two women said that some of the audio is from phone conversations they had. But they say that these chats were edited in a misleading way. The passage about licking, Ms. Tim Ratha said, referred to an expression of affection from her dog.

And there are other parts of the audio, all three said, that are not them at all, such as references to specific sexual encounters.

“How can a mother and her daughters do such a thing with the same monk,” said Ms. Som Bopha, Ms. Tim Ratha’s mother. “It is impossible.”

The three people say they do not know how their private phone conversations went public. Human rights groups say that the Cambodian authorities regularly harvest phone conversations without people’s knowledge. Tapped or manipulated audio has been used in Cambodian courts to convict the government’s critics.

Ms. Tim Ratha said that a friend of hers reported the fake page to Facebook multiple times over several days. Ms. Pilorge, of the human rights group, said her colleagues filed similar complaints. Facebook said that they did not receive a single user report questioning the veracity of the page.

In Switzerland, Mr. Luon Sovath said he was adjusting to life in exile. His thin monastic robes are sufficient for summer, but when the snows come his tropical inner thermostat will have to adjust, he said. He keeps to a Buddhist monk’s schedule, fasting after noon and meditating.

“I want to go home,” he said. “But I had no choice to run away from my country and become a refugee.”

Sun Narin reported from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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