The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted online journalist Sovann Rithy on Monday morning and handed him an 18-month suspended sentence, nearly six months after he was arrested for reporting comments made by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Court spokesperson Kuch Kimlong confirmed that Sovann Rithy, who runs Facebook news outlet FB TV, had been convicted for incitement and sentenced under Article 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. Kuch Kimlong confirmed that the 18 months prison sentence had been suspended and that Sovann Rithy would be released from detention.
“The presiding judge of the Phnom Penh court decided to sentence him to 18 months in prison for incitement, but the remaining prison term has been suspended as of today’s verdict,” Kuch Kimlong said.
VOA Khmer could not reach Sovann Rithy or his family for comment.
The online journalist was arrested in early April and charged with incitement after he reported comments made by Hun Sen at a 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.”
At the April 7 press conference, Hun Sen had said, “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.”
Local police officers justified the arrest by saying Hun Sen was speaking in jest and the quote should not have been taken seriously. Additionally, the Ministry of Information revoked his online publication’s license on April 9.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said Sovann Rithy should not have been convicted for relaying the prime minister’s own words.
“This sentence can affect the right to freedom [of journalists] and a journalist’s work since they just report public speeches of the prime minister,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the case was symbolic of spurious charges used by the government to arbitrarily target anyone.
“With this entire ludicrous trial and verdict, it is so clear that Cambodia’s political leaders can engineer the arrest and conviction of anyone they want, for whatever reason they dream up,” he said.
In addition to Sovann Rithy, two other journalists, Ros Sokhet, publisher of the Cheat Khmer newspaper; and Sok Oudom, owner of the Rithysen Radio News Station; have been arrested since April on similar incitement charges and placed in pre-trial detention.