Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves
Entry type: Single project
Publishing organisation: Al Jazeera Media Network
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-07-15
Mary Ann Jolley, David Boyle, Shaun Turton
Mark Dobbin ACS
Craig Hansen ACS
Mary Ann Jolley is an award-winning investigative journalist with 101 East who has exposed some of the world’s most powerful criminals in a career spanning decades.
David Boyle is a 101 East producer and investigative journalist who has reported on Asian criminal syndicates for more than a decade.
Shaun Turton is a freelance investigative journalist formerly based in Cambodia who has reported extensively on crime and corruption in the county.
‘Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves’ exposes large-scale trafficking, torture and enslavement inside the country’s multibillion dollar scam industry, the Chinese criminals behind it and their links to the ruling elite.
This compelling investigation reveals how thousands of young men and women are locked up in vast compounds and forced to scam targets across the globe.
Using victim testimony, video footage, concealed court records, compound coordinates, citizenship records, photographs and company registrations, it forensically maps an epidemic of fraud and slavery.
The resulting long-form documentary and interactive feature are a vital expose of grave human rights abuses.
Soon after the story broke, Cambodia was blacklisted on the US Trafficking in Persons report – triggering sanctions. FBI officials reportedly met Cambodian counterparts to discuss the issue, as did Foreign Ministers from across the region. A fugitive implicated in the interactive was arrested in Thailand.
The program received widespread media coverage in the Asia Pacific, particularly online and including a front-page story in Australia’s national newspaper, ‘The Australian’.
Online viewers around the globe praised Al Jazeera for exposing a previously unreported issue. Some revealed that they had been forced to work in cyber scam operations in Cambodia while others contacted us and said they had been about to take up jobs in Cambodia but decided against it after watching the documentary.
Directly citing the 101 East investigation, a former Foreign Minister of Thailand lambasted the Cambodian Prime Minister in ‘The Diplomat’.
Cambodian government denials fell apart under an avalanche of social media pressure and regional coverage until the most powerful politicians in the country, including the Prime Minister, were finally forced to acknowledge there was a serious problem.
A crackdown followed that saw thousands of enslaved victims freed from cyber fraud compounds, though key perpetrators remained untouched. Four suspects were arrested in Australia in December. Thai police launched major investigations. One implicated individual has since been unable to renew a permanent residency visa in a western country where he frequently resides. The fallout continues.
Before Al Jazeera traveled to Cambodia we began mapping companies tied to suspected perpetrators using C-Maps and later OCCRP Aleph’s network diagram tool while building detailed profiles on suspected perpetrators.
On the ground, extensive victim testimonies were recorded and cross-checked to further identify perpetrators. Video evidence and text message chains were extracted from phones. Coordinates were recorded for every suspected cyber slave compound, which were also discreetly filmed with drones and hidden cameras. Social media was scanned for photos linking implicated individuals to powerful politicians. Names and spellings were verified through a private citizenship database (that used Optical Character Recognition to scan and translate Khmer records) and recorded in relevant languages (Chinese, Khmer, Thai), then paired in web searches. Criminal convictions and Interpol red notices were systematically recorded.
All of this data was collated and analyzed in a spreadsheet/dropbox media archive that served multiple functions – as an evidence base for the investigation, an archive for our video editor and a database both for the composition of graphics and interactive elements.
Compound coordinates were joined with links to relevant drone shots, suspects’ company ownerships/directorship data, their criminal records, citizenship documents, photos of them with powerful elites and headshots. QGIS and Google Earth Studio were used to make base geospatial materials for After Effects, where they were combined with drone footage and photos, then animated.
The same QGIS file was used to export geospatial data to the visualization tool Flourish and merge it with detailed profiles of the individuals behind them. This element was then embedded into our interactive feature ‘Meet Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves’. Finally, victim testimonies were collated into an interactive carousel, again built with Flourish, and embedded in the same feature project.
Context about the project:
‘Forced to Scam: Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves’ was the first long-form documentary to expose the kingpins behind the country’s vast cyber slavery industry.
101 East first became aware of cyber scam operations in Cambodia in late 2019 while investigating illegal online gambling. But as Covid-19 lockdowns were enforced, travel became impossible, so our team focused on developing confidential sources remotely.
As the world began to reopen, we started finding images, videos and postings on social media sites detailing horrific cruelty inside cyber scam operations in Cambodia. Videos show victims begging for help as they were kicked, punched, beaten with large sticks and shocked with electric batons – their faces contorted with agony, their bodies covered in bleeding wounds.
Then came a challenging six months seeking out victims willing to talk and forensically sifting through their testimonies to identify those responsible.
Working in one of the most corrupt countries in Asia where brutal government repression helps criminal syndicates act with impunity, our investigation required extreme stealth and careful strategizing to unearth the perpetrators and guarantee the safety of our sources and interviewees.
Reporter Mary Ann Jolley, who was previously forced to flee Cambodia while conducting another corruption investigation, returned to obtain first-hand accounts of the atrocities being committed inside these scam operations. Almost immediately, police started harassing her and our team, requiring caution and careful diplomacy.
Notwithstanding, the team managed to interview more than a dozen victims, including a man who broke his back and leg after jumping from the third floor of a building in a desperate escape attempt. A multiplicity of languages added to the complexity. Victims came from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar Malaysia and the Philippines.
Traveling across the country, the team exposed the sites where thousands are allegedly imprisoned and enslaved.
Confidential sources provided access to private databases of government records, enabling them to confirm ownership of properties and identities and citizenship of individuals behind them. The team also secured rare access to court records in China to verify criminal histories.
Employing forensic investigative skills, the team exposed the Chinese criminals behind these cyber scam operations and their links to the highest levels of the Cambodian government, including a veteran senator and two of his relatives; a tycoon sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses and environmental destruction; and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun To.
Others implicated are Chinese fugitives and criminals who all appear to have close associations with the Prime Minister.
Given the dangers, the team could afford very limited time in the country and at each location. Filming outside the Prime Minister’s summer residence guarded by his much-feared bodyguard unit was risky, but crucial to showing how scam companies operate with apparent impunity. Filming the isolated Heng He compound was also perilous.
Rigorous fact-checking, extensive rights of replies and attempts to doorstop many of those implicated, ensured accuracy and balance, as did confronting government officials.
Extraordinary lengths were taken to ensure that sources were protected and in safe locations before the program was broadcast.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
‘Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves’ serves as an example of how shadowy and labyrinthine criminal networks can be untangled and exposed.
The strength of the work lies in how different types of data was collected, collated and analysed, then deftly presented in clear and engaging journalism.
It is worth examining Jolley’s expert distribution of evidence through her scripts to clearly prosecute dense arguments while retaining impact and engagement.
The revelations contained within should draw much needed attention to the extraordinary scale of fraud that can be committed online and the need for journalists, law-enforcement and governments, to take serious actions to curtail these crimes.
The project reveals how unregulated digital technologies can be exploited by organised crime to extract billions of dollars.
It also shows how this global technology allows syndicates to operate from the protection of corruption-ridden refuges while freely targeting victims in countries otherwise guarded by strong rule of law such as the US.
And it exposes how slavery has become frighteningly prevalent in our modern world.
Until recently, awareness of the scale of this crisis barely existed. Solutions will not be quick or easy so sustained pressure is critical.
In dictatorships like Cambodia, violence, intimidation and tight judicial control have been used to silence dissenting voices and wipe out political opposition. The international media has a unique role to shed light on the dark underbelly that thrives in this vacuum of accountability.
These syndicates have discovered a new way to reap huge profits and destroy lives by exploiting universal human emotions like loneliness and greed. It’s a calculated, sinister and sophisticated strategy refined by gangsters and enabled by elites.
Their new weapon is information and the technologies used to distribute it. As journalists, we are all uniquely trained to fight back.