The run up to Press Freedom Day, on May 3, has seen the Cambodian government make numerous arrests for alleged fake news posts and the arrest an online journalist for reporting the prime minister’s speech, with officials justifying these actions in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Media organizations, reporters, editors and rights groups have expressed serious concern over Cambodian government’s continuing crackdown on journalists and curtailment of freedom of expression for Cambodian citizens.
Soth Sokprathna, a reporter at Voice of Democracy, said since 2017, when the government launched a crackdown on the opposition and independent media organizations, he has been concerned about reporting in a restrictive environment, causing him to be overly cautious in his reporting.
“As we have seen that quoting the Prime Minister's speech can result in being jailed and the institution being closed down,” he said. “So, I am worried to report and, now, I report more carefully.”
Soth Sokprathna is referring to Sovann Rithy, TVFB founder and online reporter, who was arrested in April for quoting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech during a press conference.
The reporter reported Hun Sen admitting that the government was unable to help informal workers, suggesting that motorcycle taxi drivers sell their vehicles to buy rice. Sovann Rithy used the prime minister’s words in a Facebook post and was charged with incitement.
Additionally, rights groups Licadho and Human Rights Watch have recorded at least 30 arrests linked to alleged fake news about the novel coronavirus. The groups report that 14 of these arrests have resulted in charges and detention. These arrests have included members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved in November 2017.
In early April, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the government would arrest anyone who raised an opinion criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even threatening a senior Licadho staffer for speaking to Radio Free Asia about the fake news arrests.
The recently promulgated state of emergency law always the government to curtail press freedom and freedom of expression if such a situation was to arise. The law is vaguely worded and open for interpretation, according to rights groups, who have criticized the quick passage of the law.
“Prohibition or limitation of the distribution or dissemination of information that could cause fear,” reads subsection 11 of Article 5 of the law.
The government actions over the past two years were reflected in this year’s Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, where Cambodia ranked 144 of 180 nations. The group pointed out that the Cambodian government had managed to enhance its system for cracking down on dissent.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said attacking the prime minister for the arrests linked to fake news and detention of the Sovann Rithy was only a “campaign against the prime minister.”
"We see on Facebook. There has always been a trend of attacking Samdech Techo Hun Sen,” Phay Siphan said.
Since 2017, multiple journalists have faced court action as part of their reporting work. In 2017 November, former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were charged for espionage for reporting stories after the U.S.-based broadcaster shuttered its in-country operations.
The two reporters were tried in a Phnom Penh court last year, but instead of rendering a verdict the judge sent it back for further investigation. The investigation period prior to trial had lasted more than 18 months.
Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter were charged with incitement in 2017 during the commune election campaign, for reporting to understand why there was only one opposition-held commune in all of Ratanakkiri province. The case headed to trail in December, but was postponed.
Ratt Roth Mony, a fixer and freelancer, was convicted for incitement and handed a two-year prison sentence for assisting Russian state news agency RT, previously branded as Russia Today, about sex trafficking in the country.
Aun Pheap, who used to work at the Cambodia Daily, has left Cambodia but urged authorities to complete the legal proceedings against him. He was confident that he had not committed a crime in reporting the story.
“It is unfair to me and my colleague because we just carried out our role as journalists in interviewing people,” he said. “The authorities are complaining about us, accusing us of incitement, this is not right. So, I cannot accept this accusation.”
Nop Vy, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the government was quick to use the criminal code against journalists, when it should instead use provisions of the Law on Press.
“Journalist are still being prosecuted, some cases are being processed at court, without dropping charges,” he said. “And there are withdrawals of the licenses for the media reporting the news.”
Meas Sophorn, spokesperson for the Information Ministry, said legal actions against reporters and media organizations were justified because they had all behaved in an unprofessional manner.
He added that there was a steady increase in news outlets, equating this to better press freedoms.
"The increase in the number of media outlets is an indication of freedom of the press, which is recognized by the efforts of the government, of the relevant ministries and institutions of the Royal Government,” he said.