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Online Publication Shut Down for Criticizing Monk Beatings in Siem Reap

People offer food to Buddhist monks during the Pchum Ben festival (Festival of Death) at a pagoda in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)
People offer food to Buddhist monks during the Pchum Ben festival (Festival of Death) at a pagoda in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

This week the Information Ministry revoked the license of popular social media news publisher Pheng Vannak for reporting on a video showing severe corporal punishment at a Siem Reap pagoda.

The video has been circulating on social media since March 14 showing the chief monk of Siem Reap’s Reach Bo Pagoda beating three younger monks with a stick. The incident had led to an investigation by local authorities but Pheng Vannak’s license was taken for “affecting Buddhism.”

“The owner of the outlet has breached the agreed contract, saying that he insulted monks with his reporting, seriously affecting Buddhism as the state religion,” read the March 18 Ministry of Information letter, signed by Minister Khieu Kanharith.

Pheng Vannak is popular for his news and information dissemination on social media and a website he runs. His page has more than half a million likes on Facebook.

Reach Bo Pagoda chief monk, Pin Sem, who administered the punishment, justified the beatings, and said it was to ensure monastic discipline.

“If I didn’t use punishment such as beating them with sticks, I would have to fire them from the pagoda,” he said. “If I did that, it would be very serious for them.”

Pin Sem said Buddhism allowed beating as punishment and that it was not violent or an angry act.

“We beat them on their backsides and are not breaking arms or legs,” he added.

The Monk Council in Siem Reap province had called for action against Pheng Vannak, saying he had used unethical and insulting words for the chief monk and provincial authorities.

VOA Khmer could not reach Ministry of Cults and Religions spokesperson Seng Somony for comment on Wednesday.

In response to the Information Ministry, Pheng Vannak issued an apology on March 18 accepting that “mistakes” were made. He promised he would be mindful of his choice of words when addressing Buddhism.

“The [ministry’s] decision is correct. I overstepped with my words and it affected the religion. I am no longer a journalist from now on,” he said, using his Facebook page.

Chan Chamroeun, Siem Reap provincial coordinator for rights group ADHOC, told Radio Free Asia the use of violence in any setting is against the law and called for the Religions Ministry to find justice for the junior monks.

“The decision is up to the authorities, but if those beatings inflicted injuries, a prosecutor can bring charges against [the chief monk],” Chan Chamroeun said.

Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said “the revocation of licenses has become so easy it can be used as another threat to journalists and news outlets which dare to criticize the weak points of the government,” suggesting the use of the Law on the Press to request a correction.

Buddhist monks in Cambodia mainly follow the Theravada, or Southern, branch of the religion, and young boys often enter Buddhist monasteries as novices for short periods without taking lifelong vows.