(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately drop all charges against Sovann Rithy, a journalist working for TVFB, who was arrested for quoting a recent speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen about COVID-19, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also immediately restore the license of TVFB, which was summarily revoked, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 7, 2020, Sovann Rithy, director of the online TVFB news site, quoted on his personal Facebook page an excerpt from Hun Sen’s speech that day: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.” The police claimed that Hun Sen’s words were intended as a joke and arrested Rithy. On April 9, a Phnom Penh judge charged him with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of the criminal code and ordered his pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciare jail.
“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. On March 20, 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).
On April 9, the Cambodian government released an order outlining travel restrictions effective between April 10 and April 16 with the stated purpose of preventing the spread of the virus. It provides for exceptions to the travel ban, including by armed forces and civil servants to fulfill their duties, but does not address whether journalists can travel for work.
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.
Human Rights Watch released a report on the human rights dimensions of the COVID-19 response, analyzing government obligations and the human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak. Among other responses, governments should fully respect the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and only restrict them as international standards permit. 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.
“An independent media is critical in coping with a public health crisis because people need information to protect themselves and assess the government’s response,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors should press the Cambodian government to end its harassment and prosecution of journalists and media outlets that are simply doing their job of reporting on what the government is saying and doing about the COVID-19 crisis.”