A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Smartphone detectives take to Facebook after Kem Ley's killing

Posts that circulated on social media this week featuring photos of Oeut Ang, his wife and mother. Photo supplied
Posts that circulated on social media this week featuring photos of Oeut Ang, his wife and mother. Photo supplied

Smartphone detectives take to Facebook after Kem Ley's killing
Wed, 13 July 2016 ppp
Audrey Wilson and Phak Seangly

A day after his arrest, a steady stream of facts about Oeut Ang, alleged killer of political commentator and rights activist Kem Ley, made their way to Cambodia’s web users. Few came from the police.

Instead, in crowd-sourced efforts reminiscent of attempts to identify those involved in the beatings of two opposition lawmakers in October, an army of smartphone users were doing their best to piece together a narrative that wouldn’t depend on official sources.

The popular Facebook page of But Buntenh, founder of the activist Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, became something of a clearinghouse for tips and theories propagating on the web.

As Monday afternoon progressed, he shared information about Ang as it emerged, first a photo of him in his forest-patrol uniform, then his family members, his hometown, and villagers’ accounts of his travel plans.

Buntenh claimed yesterday that as he watched the confession video, he recognised his Siem Reap accent. He then mobilised a friend in the province, who took the clip from village to village to track down the information. Once found, it went viral.

Social media has become a platform for seeking justice and placing pressure on the authorities, Buntenh explained. “If I didn’t post [the information], it would remain hidden.”

This turn to social media as a first source stems from distrust, according to Noan Sereiboth, of Politikoffee, who re-posted the information on his public accounts. “People believe news from social media rather than TV, radio or [CPP-affiliated] media outlets,” he said.

It’s a motive for citizen journalists who have live-streamed the events, like San Buntheoun, who runs his own “breaking news” page on Facebook, and rushed to the scene as it unfolded on Sunday.

“We want to know who is behind the killing. We want to know the black-and-white information,” he said yesterday, adding that the petrol station’s CCTV footage should be made public.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said yesterday the turn to Facebook fits with a “larger suspicion” of dominant narrative, rooted in past political killings – many unsolved.

“If social media was around when Chea Vichea was gunned down outside Wat Langka in January 2004, there would have been a lot more information about who his true killer was,” he added.

Political analyst Ou Virak argued the smartphone could make this investigation different, if not its ultimate outcome. “I think the authorities and the Cambodian government understand that there are many cameras, many eyes on them,” he said.

Additional reporting by Bora Sunjolinet

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