Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

Low-cost video, and easier video distribution, simple though it sounds, is emerging as one of the premier corruption-fighting tools. This is especially true for small countries with poor track records in public integrity. Consider Cambodia. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year rule has been rife with graft, cronyism, land grabbing, and political violence, the government has been able to keep the extent of this hidden from most of the Cambodian public. Yet video and video-sharing services have proved one form of protest that the reigning government cannot seem to quash.

The most recent video to provoke the ire of the ruling party has low production values and little action. Three men sit at a table, one talking for the majority of the eight-minute run time about a Global Witness report’s allegations of extreme nepotism and cronyism within the ruling family. The man speaking, Kem Ley, was an opposition politician who was assassinated in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store just two days after his remarks. Many commentators immediately suspected the killing was political; these statements themselves spurred lawsuits from the ruling party. Multiple YouTube versions of the video now have several hundred thousand views each, with video news stories covering the killing tallying hundreds of thousands more. Kem’s funeral procession brought out droves of Cambodians, some reports numbering the crowd at two million (in a country of around 15 million people).

Another recent video about an anticorruption campaigner has become extremely popular despite—or perhaps because of—the government’s best efforts to stop it. The video’s subject, Chut Wutty, worked to expose illegal logging in Cambodian forests, logging that often happened with police complicity or direct participation. While accompanying journalists to show them the extent of the illegal deforestation, Wutty was shot and killed by a police officer. The low-budget documentary about his life and death was released this spring. Banned by the government, the film also quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gathered plenty of attention.

In a country with state-controlled media, sparse internet connectivity, and extreme poverty, the exposure to corruption-exposing video is ad hoc but growing. Videos like these hold promise for the future of the long-struggling country for several reasons:

  • First, video cannot be stifled by threats of violence or jail. 2013 saw mass protests in the streets of Cambodia’s capital against widespread corruption. The protests were short-lived, quelled by police brutality and detainment. Stifling adverse voices appears to be a priority for the current regime, with stories of monks imprisoned, banned, and de-robed for speaking out; campaigners jailed; and even journalists brutally murdered a sample of the alleged mistreatment of activists. By contrast, the Wutty documentary was an underground success despite government efforts. Within days of official banning, the film had exploded in popularity rather than disappeared. The ability to disseminate information about the state of corruption in Cambodia to Cambodians is crucial to exposing deeply entrenched norms without paying dearly.
  • Second, sharing and web-based content both inside outside Cambodia allows content to bypass filters and restrictions that aim at downplaying the current state of corruption within the ruling party. With rural Cambodians’ increasing access to phones, including smartphones and the internet, information is harder to stop. The Cambodian government’s recent crackdown on SIM use without identification is threatening; it could be used to bully and coerce providers to limiting the availability of certain content and the availability of service to certain individuals. Last year saw a bill that could be used to increase internet censorship. Still, in a nation the size of Washington State with 1500 miles of borders, much of the country can get signal from abroad. Quick-sharing video sites, like Snapchat, could allow exchanges that can go beyond the government’s reach. Even if the government can stop some information, the pervasiveness of corruption means that it cannot hope to stop every report.
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, low-cost video and video sharing allows content to be generated for a small country’s unique language group who have been kept in the dark about the true state of the government’s affairs. Khmer only has about 16 million speakers worldwide. Few Cambodians speak a second language, and those who do face a generational divide — the older generations learned French while today’s students study English in school and at university. Khmer-language video and radio news can raise awareness of anticorruption efforts in a way newspapers and word-of-mouth never could. With available Khmer TV stations either state-run or subject to government-controlled licensing, low literacy rates and few newspaper copies outside the capital, access to real news about Cambodia for Cambodians is anything but routine. In addition to documentary video, other forms of media like Khmer-language internet radio (Radio Free Asia) and news (Voice of America) make information available to people inside Cambodia; both often highlight stories on corruption and top news like the controversy surrounding Kem Ley’s death.

The film documenting Chut Wutty’s work and the images of a calmly defiant Kem Ley should inspire copycats to document other everyday happenings. A famous activist monk (yes, even the temples in Cambodia are alleged to be under the control of the government) chose to rebel by filming injustice in his country, and now one organized group of monks combats corruption in the forestry sector by filming it. Young people can use increasingly prolific smartphones to document petty bribery, from traffic ticket extortion to teachers’ demands for dteuk dtai (“tea”). The government is anything but oblivious to the threat of more information, as evidenced by the SIM crackdown and the proposed internet censorship bill. Cambodians should demand open access to information, and the international community should support those efforts. With the official government anticorruption agency under the tight control of the ruling party, informal efforts will go much further than those who cannot dare to cross those in charge. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a little video could go a very long way.

3 thoughts on “Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

  1. Pingback: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. There is an additional reason why citizen videos hold great promise for fighting corruption, although I am not sure how applicable it is to the Cambodia context. Particularly as smartphones become more affordable and accessible, videos are more likely to capture the kinds of harms that normal people experience due to corruption. (Although, admittedly, the two primary examples in the article above do not fit that mold). If the impetus to create anticorruption measures is spurred by average citizens wielding cellphones, it’s possible that the measures are more likely to be responsive to the harms they are recording, rather than harms experienced by government or business elites. This, I suppose, is sort of an argument for bottom-up measures as opposed to top-down rule making.

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