The Phnom Penh Municipal Police detained and “educated” three people over the last week for criticizing the implementation of new, and heftier fines for traffic and safety violations on social media.
The National Police has implemented new traffic and safety violation fines starting May 1, in another attempt to reduce traffic violations and road deaths.
In 2019, Cambodia reported nearly 2,000 road deaths, the highest ever recorded, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng expressing dismay at the rising death toll.
The heavy fines have resulted in people flocking to relevant government offices to register for documents they need, such as driving licenses and technical approvals for their cars. It has also caused multiple verbal spats between motorists and traffic police officers.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Police in the last week detained three people for allegedly criticizing the new fines, and made them apologize in publicly-posted videos and sign agreements before releasing them.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Headquarters will take legal actions against any individual who posts fake news, especially posting news looking down on, cursing and insulting laws and the police,” read a post on the National Police website.
The National Police website reported the temporary detention of Yvon Hem Phalla on May 6 for using inappropriate words, such as “evil” and the Khmer pejorative “aah”, in his online criticism of the new fines.
His Facebook post had a picture of his motorcycle and him standing nearby complaining about being unable to ride the vehicle because he didn’t have a driving license. Motorists riding motorcycles with engines above 125cc need a driving license in Cambodia.
In a video posted to the National Police website, the man apologized for his comments, saying he had “looked down on the police and insulted” them.
“The meaning of the post makes people confused, especially affecting the dignity of police and law officials,” he said in the video. “I admit my mistake and apologize for this.”
Two other people, Kuok Sreyna and Ros Dara, were detained similarly for re-posting old videos or photos of them being stopped by the traffic police. They were also asked to apologize in videos on the National Police website and sign agreements to refrain from such activities.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Theth could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for human rights monitoring at Licadho, said it was preferable to implement the new fines in a step-by-step manner because a lot of the angry reactions online were a result of people being unaware of the new regulations.
He said making the three people issue public apologies was problematic and impinged on their rights.
“From a human rights perspective, it can affect the freedoms and rights of those people. If they don’t commit a crime, why not just educate them? Why post these videos?” he said.
The recent detentions follow a slew of arrests by the government for alleged online fake news posts and linked to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Human Rights Watch in April reported at least 30 “arbitrary arrests” on charges of spreading fake news and other charges, including the arrest of 12 people linked to the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.