Fresh News Spins New Tales of Spies and US Interference

Government-aligned media outlet Fresh News, the recent epicenter of pro-government leaks and attacks against NGOs, media and the political opposition, has continued to publish anonymous accusations that CNRP President Kem Sokha and his daughters were in a “political wedding” to U.S. backers and foreign agents.

A government spokesman also leveled similar, if less specific, accusations of U.S. meddling on Sunday.

The charges were strongly denied by both opposition spokesman Yim Sovann and U.S. freelance journalist Geoffrey Cain, whom the posts accused of helping the CNRP try to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“This is all very, very troubling,” Mr. Cain said on Sunday from his current home in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “I’m really amazed that someone on Facebook was spending all that time piecing together this fake conspiracy.”

The accusations originated from the Facebook page Kon Khmer, or Khmer Child, which accused the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a U.S.-funded democracy promoting NGO, of colluding with the opposition in the days leading up to its forced shutdown by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.

The closure of NDI, with its foreign staff given seven days to leave the country, prompted condemnation from the U.S. Embassy and State Department.

Political analysts have said that the expulsion of foreign staff was the latest sign in a deepening rift between the Cambodian and U.S. governments, as well as an escalating crackdown against foreign and independent observers ahead of a crucial national election in July that threatens the ruling CPP’s decadeslong grip on power.

Kon Khmer’s early Facebook posts and all later ones have been quickly picked up and reprinted verbatim by Fresh News, which has become the government’s de facto vehicle for news releases as well as a reliable source of leaks and opinion pieces painting opposition politicians as adulterous national traitors.

On Friday, the page posted photographs and screenshots taken from Mr. Cain’s Facebook account as well as images of James Ricketson, 68, an eccentric Australian filmmaker who was arrested in June and later charged with espionage. The post claimed Mr. Cain had orchestrated street protests in the South Korean capital, Seoul, leading up to the December impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye and had similar plans here.

Mr. Ricketson, meanwhile, was described by the post as an “important spy who is highly-experienced at helping the opposition party in Cambodia.” He is currently being held in Prey Sar prison awaiting trial.

Another post on Sunday claimed Sam Downings, whom it identified as a U.S. Embassy political officer, was also a CIA operative and the boyfriend of Mr. Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya, the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs.

It also alleged links between Mr. Sokha’s family and the International Republican Institute (IRI)—the U.S. Republican party’s counterpart to NDI—which it claimed had directly and indirectly funded and trained movements to topple Mr. Hun Sen.

An April last year U.S. Embassy news release identified a Samuel Downing as a political officer there, though the Embassy on Sunday declined any comment. Leaked photographs on the Facebook post show Mr. Downings, as he is referred to, dining with Mr. Sokha’s family and posing at a temple with his arm around Ms. Monovithya, who did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

Mr. Downing could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Sovann, the CNRP spokesman, on Sunday denied the links and guilt of the alleged U.S. agents.

“I take some photos and put it online—you believe it?” he asked. “Those people are not criminals.”

Mr. Cain, who was pictured dining with Ms. Monovithya and her sister, Kem Samathida, in a photo that appeared to be from last month, said that he had befriended the pair after doing a summer university project in Cambodia in 2007 and stayed in touch, with the latest trip prompted by a visa run on a break from working on a book about the South Korean conglomerate Samsung.

He speculated that a social media stalker must have concocted the story around the photograph and called the accusations of espionage “alarming,” pointing to Mr. Ricketson’s case.

“I love the country,” he said of Cambodia. He said that he had hoped to return to Cambodia, but “I’m not coming back anytime soon.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to say if the accusations mirrored that of the government.

But he had little doubt that the U.S. actively supported the opposition, accusing U.S.-funded organizations of instigating the 2013 post national election protests and saying that the embassy regularly hosted and sometimes hid opposition politicians.

“Why those people interfere?” he asked.

(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)

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