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Cambodia’s government has used the pandemic to silence critics and stifle dissent, according to a statement signed by more than 100 NGOs and communities.
PHNOM PENH--Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities came together on Monday (May 18) to call on the government to drop all charges against two imprisoned journalists who were recently arrested by Cambodian authorities. The joint statement, signed by 132 NGOs and communities called for a halt to all harassment of other journalists in Cambodia, many of whom are facing prosecution for their critical reporting.
“We also urge the government to immediately restore the broadcasting licenses of all media outlets revoked before and during this latest assault on press freedom,” the statement read.
Since the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic began, journalists Sok Oudom and Sovann Rithy have been arrested for “incitement to commit a felony” after their critical reporting on the Cambodian government.
Oudom regularly reported on longstanding land disputes between local farming communities and powerful district officials, according to the statement issued by human rights group LICADHO.
On May 13, Sok Oudom was arrested by local police and questioned before being sent to the provincial court on May 14 where he remains in pre-trial detention.
"Ministry of Information revoked the media license of his Rithysen Radio Station and its website, despite the fact that Oudom had yet to be charged with any crime," LICADHO said.
On April 7, Sovann Rithy was arrested late at night by the Cambodian authorities for having accurately quoted comments made in a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen who said that moto-taxi drivers could sell their motorcycles to buy food if they face bankruptcy.
On April 9, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the detention of Rithy at the Police Judiciary prison for, according to the detention letter, “inciting to commit crimes” under articles of the Criminal Code. TVFB’s media license was revoked.
Rithy was among 17 journalists from 14 countries to receive this year’s Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award given by Germany’s international broadcaster.
“They represent all journalists worldwide who have disappeared or been arrested or threatened because of their reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic,” Deutsche Welle Director General Peter Limbourg said on May 3.
“By arresting and charging a journalist for publicly quoting the Prime Minister’s own words about the pandemic, the government is sending a clear message that any discussion of the government’s response to the outbreak can and will be punished by imprisonment—a violation of the rights of all Cambodians,” LICADHO said.
According to LICADHO, since the start of the year, at least a dozen journalists have been summoned and questioned by Cambodian police and judicial authorities as a result of their reporting. The rights group, along with the other signatories to the statement, argue that the ongoing arrest, detention and judicial harassment of journalists for critical reporting is a serious violation of the Cambodian people’s right to information.
“We strongly object to the arbitrary arrest and persecution of any journalist in Cambodia targeted over their reporting,” the statement read.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin urged the signatories to the statement to help those journalists by supporting them with a lawyer to find evidence to give to the court, claiming that they shouldn’t just ask for their release.
“When they do things like this it seems to encourage journalists to commit similar offenses,” said Malin, who assured civil society organizations and NGOs that journalists who work ethically will not be charged.
He went on to say that if they broke the law, they will be punished just like normal citizens, but did not offer comment on Oudom’s arrest and the distinct lack of charges levied against him.
Meanwhile spokesperson for the Ministry of Information Meas Sophorn recently said that the ministry decided to revoke the licenses, with the ministry observing that Odom had frequently disseminated information that was “unethical and abusive.”
Sophorn alleges that Oudom’s broadcasting violated a contract that the Ministry of Information has with broadcasters, although failed to point out exactly what content Oudom had broadcast that was either unethical, abusive or in violation of his rights as a broadcaster.
There is also a public complaint against Odom, who publishes information about public defamation.
“We have advised and the provincial information department has called and advised many times, but the press organization is still disobeying the instructions of law as the code of ethics and professionalism of the press and to a contract which it has upheld in the ministry,” Sophorn claimed.
Cambodia’s relationship with the press has rapidly and substantially deteriorated since 2017, in the run-up to the 2018 national elections. Reporters without Borders have documented the decline in press freedoms, which actually improved annually between 2013 and 2016, but since ranking 128th out of 180 countries analyzed by the independent media watchdog in 2016, Cambodia has gradually slipped back to the 143rd out of 180 countries—the same ranking it achieved in 2013.
Two journalists with Radio Free Asia's Khmer language service have been arrested, charged with espionage and then with peddling pornography which has resulted in a drawn out trial. Their appeal was rejected by a Phnom Penh court on Dec. 31, 2019.
Also in 2019, the fixer and translator who helped produce the investigative documentary My Mother Sold Me with Russia Today was sentenced to two years in jail for spreading fake news.
Prior to this, in 2017, Zsombor Peter and Aun Pheap – two reporters from the now-defunct Cambodia Daily – were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” after reporting on commune elections in Rattanakiri province. Both Pheap and Peter have since left Cambodia, but still face up to two years in prison if convicted.