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Cambodian Journalist Sentenced to 18 Months for Criticizing Hun Sen

File - Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the “Cheat Khmer” newspaper, was arrested on June 25 for critical Facebook posts about Prime Minister Hun Sen. (Facebook)

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted newspaper publisher Ros Sokhet and handed him an 18-month prison sentence on Wednesday, five months after he was arrested for Facebook posts criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the “Cheat Khmer” newspaper, was arrested on June 25 for critical Facebook posts about Prime Minister Hun Sen, accusing him of not helping people affected by indebtedness.

Sam Sokong, Ros Sokhet’s lawyer, said the newspaper publisher had been convicted for incitement and sentenced under Article 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. He was also asked to pay a $500 fine.

“He was sentenced for 18 months in prison and a fine of two million Riel,” Sam Sokong said.

Sam Sokong said Ros Sokhet had asked him to appeal the decision on the grounds that the Facebook posts were his personal opinions and that the conviction affected his freedom of expression.

According to rights groups, Ros Sokhet was arrested for two posts addressing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s succession plans and rising indebtedness among Cambodian households.

Ros Sokhet is the second journalist in the last month to be convicted for incitement, a vaguely-defined charge often used to target detractors and critics of Hun Sen and the Cambodian government. In October, Sovann Rithy, who founded social media news outlet TVFB, was convicted for incitement and given a suspended sentence under Article 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code.

Sovann Rithy was arrested in early April and charged with incitement after he reported comments made by Hun Sen at a National Assembly press conference. The prime minister had said that informal workers, including motorcycle taxi drivers, should sell their vehicles to buy rice because the government could not help them during the COVID-19 economic downturn.

Shortly after, Sovann Rithy posted a photo of a motorcycle driver on Facebook, with the accompanying text: “If the moto-taxi driver is bankrupt, they can sell their moto because the government is unable to help.”

Radio station owner Sok Oudom, who runs Rithysen Radio News Station, was also tried last week for allegedly inciting villagers against the military, in a long-standing dispute in Kampong Chhnang province. Sok Oudom faces similar charges to Sovann Rithy and Ros Sokhet and his verdict is due on November 17.

Rights groups have criticized the Cambodian government for its frequent use of the incitement legal provision to curtail press freedom. Activists say these arrests and convictions send an ominous message to independent news outlets and reporters.

Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the recent conviction of two journalists sends a threatening message to journalists working on controversial stories.

“I think the sustained conviction of journalists can be a threatening signal to other journalists who are doing their work,” he said.

A statement released on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists earlier this month called for an end to attacks on free expression and protection of journalists critical of the Cambodian government.

The statement, released by more than 50 local and international groups, listed at least 13 journalists who have faced court complaints for their news coverage and the revocation of four media licenses during the coronavirus pandemic for the alleged sharing of fake news.

“In the past years, the Cambodian government adopted a series of repressive laws that have enabled a crackdown on independent media and social media and resorted to provisions in the penal code – in particular articles 494 and 495 – to silence critical reporting and its reporters,” read the statement, referring to the criminal code provisions on incitement.

In an ongoing media crackdown that started after the 2017 commune election, independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily was closed for alleged tax violations and The Phnom Penh Post was sold to a Malaysian investor with links to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Also, two former Radio Free Asia reporters were charged with espionage and two former Cambodia Daily reporters are awaiting trial for alleged incitement over a 2017 election story.