The sentencing last week of a Cambodian publisher has been condemned by local media associations, who say jailing journalists sends a troubling message.
Youn Chhiv, who runs the news website Koh Kong Hot News, was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $500 (2 million riels) on September 30.
Sok Sothy, a deputy provincial governor in Koh Kong province, filed a complaint against Chhiv accusing him of defamation and fake news over his reporting on a land dispute, according to a provincial court official.
The article in question, posted on the Koh Kong Hot News’ Facebook page, alleged that villagers were being evicted illegally.
Deputy Prosecutor and Spokesman for the Koh Kong Provincial Court Vei Phirum confirmed the sentencing to VOA.
“The case was already tried,” Vei Phirum said, adding that the journalist was convicted “on charge of incitement to commit a felony according to Article 494 and Article 495 of criminal code.”
“Youn Chhiv now is serving a jail term in Koh Kong provincial prison,” he added.
The court spokesperson said that Chhiv published several posts about the governor and is serving his sentence in “a Koh Kong provincial prison.”
Local media groups believe the charges should be dropped, however, and that the press law should have been used to deal with the complaint.
“The use of criminal code to take action against journalists is a kind of intimidation and creates fear in journalists, especially in reporting information concerning high-ranking officials,” Nop Vy, who runs the local Cambodian Journalist Alliance (CamboJA), told VOA. The threat of prosecution means “journalists will not dare to do such reporting,” he said.
Hour In, a coordinator at Licadho, a rights group in Koh Kong province, says the court case could deter other journalists.
“If he is imprisoned, freedom of the press will be disappeared. Cambodia’s press law will be meaningless for journalists,” Hour In told VOA. “Who would dare to report on injustice and the negative activities of the authorities, the rich, and the powerful persons?”
Hour In said he believes that if a society does not have space for criticism, it will not fully develop, and only a small group of people will be able to take advantage of the country’s progress.
The journalist’s 19-year-old son Youn Yihin said his father’s prosecution was not fair, and he called on authorities to pardon him.
“It’s not fair because [his] journalistic work is helping citizens,” Youn Yihin told VOA. “I want to have his conviction dismissed and let him issue letters making apologies.”
Chhiv already has issued apologies to the National Defense Minister Tea Banh, Koh Kong Provincial Governor Mithona Phouthong and deputy Koh Kong provincial governor Sok Sothy. In the letters, viewed by VOA, he asked for leniency in his case and pledged not to make future mistakes.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Thursday condemned the conviction in a statement.
“The Cambodian government use of criminal code in the case of Youn Chhiv is yet another attempt to intimate and persecute journalists for their reporting. Journalism is not a crime,” the IFJ said. “The IFJ condemns intimidatory acts that work to undermine journalistic independence and press freedom.”
Cambodia has a poor press freedom record, ranking 144 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The media watchdog’s annual index says the ruling party is working to “eliminate critical media.”