Cambodian authorities arrested a journalist for quoting the country’s prime minister who spoke about the economic consequences of COVID-19. The authorities also revoked the license of the journalist’s news site.
Sovann Rithy, director of the online outlet TVFB, was charged with “incitement to commit a felony, affected social security, order and safety” by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday, for which he could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to four million riels (US$1,000).
Rithy cited on his personal Facebook page an excerpt from a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen telling Cambodians that the government would not help if informal workers go bankrupt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help,” Rithy quoted the prime minister.
The police claimed that Hun Sen’s words were intended as a joke and arrested Rithy, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported.
HRW now urged the Cambodian authorities to drop all charges against Rithy and restore TVFB’s license.
“Even in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, arresting a journalist for quoting the prime minister marks a new low for press freedom,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should immediately release Rithy and drop the bogus charges against him and others detained for expressing their opinions or fears about COVID-19.”
The National Police spokesman, Chhay Kim Khoeun, said that “If his [Rithy’s] comments are believed to be unintentional, the authorities will re-educate him.” The Cambodian government has previously used “re-education” tactics to silence detainees by forcing them to sign pledges to refrain from expressing critical opinions in exchange for their release.
On April 8, information Minister Khieu Kanharith revoked TVFB’s broadcasting license on the grounds that Rithy broadcast information “which was to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.” TVFB had been granted a license in January 2017. The government should immediately restore TVFB’s license.
On March 18, the Information Ministry claimed that 47 Facebook users and pages had spread misinformation about the virus with the intention of causing fear in the country and damaging the government’s reputation.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Sar Kheng warned that anyone who spreads misinformation about COVID-19 “to stir chaos” would face legal action.
The Cambodian authorities have arrested a number of people on allegations that they had spread “fake news” about the coronavirus. As of April 9, Human Rights Watch has documented 23 arrests and 10 people in pretrial detention.
Eight of those jailed were affiliated with the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Since 2017, the Cambodian government has severely clamped down on media freedom. The authorities forcibly shut a major independent newspaper, forced the sale of another independent newspaper to businessmen with ties to the government, and silenced 32 radio FM frequencies that broadcast independent news programs. The government harasses independent journalists and has significantly restricted online expression. (Source: HRW)