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A policeman (center) and others wear face masks as a preventive measure against COVID-19, at a market in Phnom Penh on March 17, 2020.   © 2020 TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP via Getty Images
(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should stop arresting people for expressing concerns about COVID-19’s impact in Cambodia and claiming they are spreading so-called “fake news,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch has documented the arrests of 17 people since late January 2020 for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia. These include four members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), all of whom remain in pretrial detention. The authorities also arrested and questioned a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears on social media about rumors of positive COVID-19 cases at her school and in her province. Twelve were released from detention after signing pledges to not spread “fake news” in the future and to apologize.

“The Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government’s response,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should stop abusing people’s free speech rights and instead focus on providing the public with accurate and timely information about COVID-19.”

As of March 22, 86 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the country. Prime Minister Hun Sen initially downplayed the risk of the virus spreading in Cambodia and on January 30 threatened to eject reporters or officials wearing face masks from a news conference. On March 17, he changed course and imposed a 30-day ban on arrivals from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, the United States, and Iran. However, joint military drills involving hundreds of Chinese soldiers proceeded as scheduled.

Hun Sen has so far failed to implement a public health campaign based on a strong disease surveillance system, develop the infrastructure for testing to detect cases and contain the outbreak, or even acknowledge the serious risk the virus carries for his population. The relatively low number of cases reported raises the question of whether sufficient tests are being conducted or necessary information is being shared with the people.

The 17 people arrested, among whom are 5 women, came from 7 provinces: Siem Reap, Pursat, Koh Kong, Phnom Penh, Takeo, Kampot, and Prey Veng. Those charged face penal code violations including incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information.

In a March 9 speech, Hun Sen directly threatened to arrest Long Phary, a CNRP member in Prey Veng province. Phnom Penh police arrested him on March 18 and told him the arrest stemmed from a phone conversation in which Long Phary discussed rumors about the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The government did not say how it learned about the contents of a private phone call, but in the past, the government has engaged in unauthorized phone tapping of civil society activists and political opposition members. 

On March 17, Phnom Penh police arrested Ngin Khean, a 29-year-old CNRP youth member from Prey Veng province. The authorities alleged that he spread “fake news” on his Facebook page about the coronavirus. Ngin Khean is in pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison and has been charged with plotting and incitement to commit a felony.

On March 11, Siem Reap police arrested Phut Thona Lorn (also known as “Lorn Ly”), a local CNRP supporter. Prior to the arrest, Lorn Ly had shared two videos on his Facebook profile page in which the speaker said that the Cambodian government needed Vietnamese government assistance to learn about a foreign arrival to Cambodia who tested positive for the coronavirus. After the authorities accused Lorn Ly of spreading “fake news,” the Siem Reap provincial court charged him with spreading false information. The police said they had “monitored” Lorn Ly’s Facebook account for a week prior to the arrest but did not explain the legal basis for that surveillance. He is being held in pretrial detention at Siem Reap’s provincial prison.

On March 18, the Information Ministry claimed that 47 Facebook users and pages had spread misinformation regarding the virus, with the intention of causing fear in the country and damaging the government’s reputation. On March 20, Interior Minister Sar Kheng warned that anyone who spread misinformation about COVID-19 “to stir chaos” would face legal action.

Under international human rights law, the Cambodian government has an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for protecting and promoting rights, including the right to health. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself. A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, notice of service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.

The Cambodian government’s harassment of political opposition members and supporters in the context of COVID-19 is part of a broader campaign against civil society activists, independent journalists, and ordinary people who express their views both online and offline, Human Rights Watch said. The government has repeatedly said it would adopt a “fake news” law, a cybercrime law, and amendments to the media law – all of which are likely to curtail the right to freedom of expression and to facilitate arbitrary and unfettered surveillance of those deemed dissidents.

The latest repression builds on the government’s campaign of harassment and arrest of CNRP members and supporters since the Supreme Court dissolved the party on political grounds in November 2017. Between August and November 2019, the authorities arbitrarily arrested or detained more than 60 CNRP members on various charges. Many were charged with incitement and plotting a coup because they organized to receive exiled CNRP leaders on their planned return to Cambodia on November 9. While authorities released many of the CNRP members on bail, all criminal charges against them remain pending.

“It’s truly frightening that during a national crisis, the Cambodian government seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive COVID-19 public information campaign,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors promoting human rights should press the Cambodian government to adopt a rights-respecting approach in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, starting with upholding freedom of expression.”


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