A Phnom Penh court charged online journalist Sovann Rithy, of the TV FB news outlet, on Thursday with incitement to commit a felony for the rudimentary act of reporting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s comments during a press conference on Tuesday.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has charged Sovann Rithy, founder and reporter at online publication TV FB, under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code for “incitement to commit a felony,” which includes a prison sentence of six months to two years.
Phnom Penh court spokesperson Kuch Kimlong confirmed the charges against Sovann Rithy, whereas a court document revealed that the journalist had been sent to pre-trial detention at Police Judiciare (PJ) prison.
Sovann Rithy’s arrest Tuesday night is another example of the government’s ongoing crackdown against journalists and media organizations in Cambodia, which includes the arrest of two former Radio Free Asia journalists in 2017, shuttering of the Cambodia Daily in 2017 and sale of the Phnom Penh Post in 2018 to an owner with links to the prime minister.
The charges against Sovann Rithy seem to stem from a Facebook post on his personal page, which boasts more than 600,000 likes, where he quoted a statement made by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday.
The post reads, “If the moto taxi driver is bankrupt, they can sell their moto because the government is unable to help.” This was posted along with the photo of a motorcycle taxi driver.
On Tuesday, Hun Sen was responding to a journalist’s question about helping informal workers during the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown, when he said the government was unable to help informal workers.
“Frankly speaking, government is unable [to help]. The government almost has no money for people in the informal sectors,” he said.
“The government will die if we help motorcycle and taxi drivers. If you are bankrupt, sell the moto first. Why [you] keep the moto for your good looks,” he said, chuckling.
He then returned to the subject a few minutes later to further explain his comments, this time without the laughing.
“As you asked me about moto drivers complaining whether the state can support them, [they] can sell the motors and buy rice to eat first. The state doesn’t have money to support.”
Sovann Rithy’s reportage about the press conference and Hun Sen’s comments have been used by the police to justify his arrest and filing of charges against him, according to posts on the National Police’s website.
Following the arrest, Sovann Sokha, Sovann Rithy’s father, apologized on Facebook for his son’s alleged crime, asking for leniency in the case.
“My son, Sovann Rithy has made a very serious mistake because I as his father haven’t advised him well,” he said, in a video on the social networking site. “I am so regretful. I am [joining my] hands and would like to ask our leaders to forgive him.”
Additionally, the Ministry of Information was quick to revoke TV FB’s media license on Wednesday, despite no official charges being filed against Sovann Rithy and the media organization.
“The license owner published information which contains incitement, affected social security, order and safety,” read an Information Ministry statement from Wednesday, even though charges had not been filed.
Information Ministry spokesperson Phos Sovann, in a press conference on Thursday, defended the ministry’s hurried decision, saying the action was completely justified.
“It has not been rushed. The Law on the Press gives the government rights to [revoke licenses] if it affects social security, order and injures the whole society,” Phos Sovann said.
Given the nature of the alleged crime, Article 497 of the Criminal Code makes a distinction for incitement cases in the media, directing any punishments to the provisions of the Press Law.
“The offences defined in this Section when committed through the print media are subject to the provisions of the Press Law,” the article reads, with print media being the primary medium of news distribution when the law was passed in 1995.
Additionally, Article 4 of the 1995 Law on the Press says publication of official “statements, meetings, minutes or reports of the executive branch” cannot be penalized.
“The publication of official information such as statements, meetings, meeting minutes or reports, etc., may not be penalized if such publication is fully true or an accurate summary of the truth,” the article reads.
Nop Vy, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the arrest would work as threat to other journalists and people expressing their opinions.
“I think the government is very worried,” he said, referring to concerns over the government’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“The arrest can be the implementation of restrictions and a threat to other journalists in Cambodia,” Nop Vy said.
Journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) labelled the arrest as “Kafkaesque,” adding that imprisoning a reporter for quoting the prime minister was “absurd.”
“We call on the Cambodian justice system to put an end to this utterly Kafkaesque case by releasing Sovann Rithy at once, and we call on the government to reinstate TVFB’s media license,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
On March 24, Human Rights Watch said it had documented 17 detentions where the Cambodian government had arrested someone for expression their opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic, but claimed the people had spread fake news.
“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, in the statement.