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CPJ Calls Chinese Journalist Deportation a “Severe Overreaction”

China's ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian (L) hands over a shipment of Sinopharm Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) during a ceremony at Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh on February 7, 2021. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

The Committee to Protect Journalists criticized the Cambodian government’s decision to deport and ban the re-entry of a Chinese journalist who reported on claims that the COVID-19 vaccine was for sale.

The Cambodian government deported Shen Kaidong, the editor of Angkor Today since 2015, after posting a February 23 story about Chinese nationals in Cambodia receiving anonymous text messages offering a COVID-19 vaccine for $120. Police arrested Shen Kaidong on February 24 in Siem Reap province and deported him shortly after.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization, said Cambodia should allow Shen Kaidong to return and continue his work as a journalist. It added that journalists should be allowed to work freely and they should not be deported for their work.

“Cambodia’s deportation of journalist Shen Kaidong and the suppressing of his Angkor Today news outlet is a severe overreaction to a dispute over the outlet’s coverage,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.

Crispin said the government should not use “flimsy” allegations of fake news to suppress reporting on COVID-19.

The article, which was posted to Angkor Today’s WeChat account, reported that many Chinese nationals had received anonymous text messages promising a shot of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine for $120.

A reporter with Angkor Today called a number listed with the text message and the person who answered said the $120 was not for the vaccine but for a shuttle service to Phnom Penh, where the vaccine was available at the time.

Angkor Today also posted messages on its Facebook page, saying they are preparing to clarify its story to Cambodian authorities.

Government authorities were quick to reject Angkor Today’s report, the Health Ministry denied the vaccine for sale story, the Immigration Department called the article “fake news” and the Information Ministry revoked its online publication’s license.

The Cambodian government has yet to reveal if an investigation was conducted to ascertain whether Angkor Today’s claims were legitimate or not.

Kirth Chantharith, the head of the General Department of Immigration, did not want to comment on Shen Kaidong’s deportation and said the investigation had been carried out by Cambodia's National Police.

“The National Police team investigated this. You can ask them,” he said.

Chhay Kimkhoeun, a spokesperson for the National Police, said Shen Kaidong could approach the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh and file a complaint if he was not satisfied with the deportation order.

“If he wants to protest, he can follow legal procedures by having a lawyer or he can complain to his embassy,” Chhay Kimkhoeun said.

The spokesperson took offense when asked whether an investigation had been conducted into whether the COVID-19 vaccine was being sold in the country.

“You are not the prosecutor who can ask me this question,” he said.

VOA Khmer could not reach Information Ministry spokespersons, Meas Sophorn and Phos Sovann, for comment on Friday.

Ith Sothoeuth, a media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, urged authorities to allow Shen Kaidong to defend the story and to conduct their own investigation.

“I hope the government will investigate more to find the truth to give justice to him,” he said.

“I don’t know how the authorities investigated the case. But the time frame seems too short to have done a thorough investigation.”