Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said those spreading fake news about a COVID-19 outbreak in the Kingdom are considered “terrorists.”
Speaking at a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr Hun Sen called on the public to fight against those who spread false coronavirus information in the Kingdom.
“I will consider those ill-intentioned individuals who spread fake news as terrorists,” he said, adding that some individuals have falsely attributed the death of some people to COVID-19 when they had actually died of other diseases.
“I ask these people: What do you get from spreading fake news? Your acts only serve to frighten the public, including your family,” Mr Hun Sen said, emphasising that no Cambodian citizen has contracted or died from COVID-19.
“Everyone, before panicking, should first get a medical check-up to know whether they are ill or not,” he said.
He added the public should be active in combatting the spread of fake news in the Kingdom. “If they [people spreading fake news] say Cambodians have contracted the virus, you have to refute their false statement and post you are not ill.”
Political analyst Hang Vitou yesterday said he disagreed with the premier’s stance of calling those spreading fake news as “terrorists”.
“I disagree with how the Prime Minister has regarded them because I believe the people are well-informed about COVID-19 anyway,” said Mr Vitou.
“First, he wanted to show that Cambodia made the right choice of not cancelling inbound flights from China, as well as prove the government can prevent the spread of coronavirus. So, he considered anyone spreading exaggerated information as insulting the efforts expended by the government.”
“Second, he wanted to remind Cambodian people to not be afraid of COVID-19 because it will affect national security and the economy, as well as instigate discrimination against the Chinese people,” he said.
Although Mr Vitou strongly opposes those who spread fake coronavirus news as they only feed public fear, he said the “government should instead provide evidence in response to fake news rather than intimidate the public”.
The People Centre for Development and Peace president Yong Kim Eng echoed Mr Vitou’s remarks, citing the label of terrorism is a serious accusation.
“I do not think the dissemination of fake news should be considered an act of terrorism,” he said. “To label them as ‘terrorists’ is quite concerning as it only frightens the public wanting to share information regarding the virus.”
The government, he said, should instead order the Ministry of Health to provide legitimate and credible news to fight against the spread of fake ones.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna said the government should encourage the public to share information rather than intimidate them or take legal action against them.
“That the head of the government considers those who spread fake news as terrorists is a serious issue,” he said. “His remarks will affect the reputation of the government because the public may now refuse to provide and share authentic information [regarding coronavirus] for fear of being accused by the government as ‘terrorists’.”
He added: “As we know, COVID-19 is a global concern and we do not exactly know whether it will spread in Cambodia or not. So far, only one known case involving a Chinese national has been cited in the Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Mam Bunheng said in a press conference yesterday that officials recently tested 135 samples from locals and foreigners and found no new case of a COVID-19 infection.
“No Cambodian citizen has been infected by COVID-19,” he said, assuring that the Ministry of Health remains in constant communication with the World Health Organization and has already put in place preventive measures to respond to suspected outbreaks in the Kingdom.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine yesterday said the 135 samples collected do not include those gathered from the MS Westerdam passengers.
“The 135 people tested negative for COVID-19. At present, no Cambodian citizen has been infected with the virus,” she said, adding that the Health Ministry will continue to monitor the situation.
Ms Vandine also refuted all posts in social media alleging that some people have collapsed due to COVID-19 infection.
“I would like to clarify that the COVID-19 virus does not induce the sudden collapse of people. Symptoms of infection appear gradually,” she said.
Meanwhile, WHO representative Dr Li Ailan said the COVID-19 situation remains a serious cause for concern for a number of reasons.
“Firstly, we have seen an increasing number of cases globally. Secondly, more and more countries are reporting infections from the virus and lastly, many aspects of the virus remain unknown to us,” she said.
She said this means that countries, including Cambodia, cannot fully respond to the absolute treatment of COVID-19 infections. She called on all countries to be prepared for a global pandemic.
“As for Cambodia, I am very pleased to see the response of the Ministry of Health from how it dealt with the first case of infection cited in the Kingdom to how it received the passengers of the MS Westerdam cruise ship,” Ms Ailan said.
She added: “So far, we have not seen a large-scale virus outbreak in the Kingdom. However, moving forward, we should be prepared for such a possibility in the future.”
The WHO, she said, is committed to supporting the Ministry of Health and its partners in dealing with COVID-19, adding: “As you may remember, Cambodia responded well to the first case of infection, in collaboration with the WHO. I am also confident that Cambodia has public health surveillance systems in place to detect possible infections.”