A Cambodian journalist charged with “incitement” after accurately reporting comments by Prime Minister Hun Sen was arrested because the nation’s leader had been “joking” when he said them, a police official said Thursday.
Cambodian journalist and director of the TVFB news site Sovann Rithy was taken into custody by police in the capital Phnom Penh on Tuesday evening and charged with “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code.
The reporter had accurately posted on Facebook a comment by Hun Sen earlier that day telling motorbike-taxi drivers who go bankrupt because of the coronavirus outbreak to “sell your motorbikes for spending money … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.”
The information ministry reacted by ordering the revocation of TVFB’s media license on the grounds that its editor had “selected” the prime minister’s quote.
On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court officially charged Sovann Rithy and ordered him sent to pre-trial detention.
Speaking to reporters after the court appearance, National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said Sovann Rithy’s posting was “exaggerated” and had “created social problems.”
“The prime minister was just joking, but [he] published it,” he said, without elaborating.
Sovann Rithy’s arrest prompted Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to issue a statement Wednesday demanding his “immediate release” and the reinstatement of TVFB’s media license, while labeling his case “Kafkaesque.”
“Imprisoning a journalist for quoting a statement by the prime minister word for word is more than absurd,” RSF said.
“The COVID-19 crisis must not be used as pretext for getting rid of journalists who do not blindly toe the government line,” the group added, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus, which as of Thursday had infected 119 people in Cambodia.
Cambodia was ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Also on Thursday, RSF issued a statement urging Cambodia’s legislators to amend draft legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus that the National Assembly is expected to approve by the end of the week, citing what it called “gross violations of the freedom to inform and be informed that could have serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis.”
Leng Peng Long, spokesman for the one-party National Assembly, told RFA’s Khmer Service that lawmakers would vote on the draft “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” on Friday.
He said that despite criticism of the draft law, the government and the National Assembly feel it is “important to put such a law into place.”
“We believe that we need the law because the constitution allows [for it],” he said. “When we invoke the law depends on the situation.”
On Tuesday, Leng Peng Long confirmed that the draft law is nearly identical to one that was leaked last week, prompting New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to warn that it contained vague clauses that would provide Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat” if enacted.
On Thursday, RSF cited article 5 of the draft law as containing clauses that “would institutionalize a system of surveillance and censorship never seen in 30 years of Khmer democracy.”
Clause 11 provides for “Prohibiting or restricting the distribution or broadcast of information that could generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency,” the group said.
Clause 10, meanwhile, allows the government “to surveil and keep track of all means [of communication] for the receipt of information via telecommunication contact systems in every form.”
“Prime Minister Hun Sen is brazenly exploiting the coronavirus crisis in order to secure his dictatorial rule even more, without thought for the health of his fellow citizens,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“It is up to legislators to stop this intolerable abuse of power.”
RSF cited reports that some legislators in Cambodia may be preparing to challenge Hun Sen’s desire to have his children succeed him and warned that the prime minister could use the draft law’s articles to suppress debate on the issue.
Also on Thursday, Hun Sen issued a nationwide travel ban until after the April 13-16 Khmer New Year to “prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the community.”
According to the ban, only cargo transportation, government and military convoys, emergency and sanitation vehicles, and garment factory worker buses will be permitted on the country’s roads, and only with passengers of four or less.
The government recently announced that it had canceled the Khmer New Year holiday and said factory employees would be required to work as usual, and Hun Sen warned Thursday of “tough measures” for those who don’t go to the factories.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Ministry of Labor said workers can travel to factories if they show their identification cards to the authorities, adding that not going “can be regarded as a serious violation resulting in termination without pay.” Workers who “incite or intimidate their coworkers” will face prosecution, the statement added.
A worker in Phnom Penh named Sam Soksreymom told RFA that she had planned to travel to her hometown for the holidays, but changed her mind after the order was issued.
She said workers are concerned about COVID-19, but are also afraid of losing their wages.
“The factory said if we travel to our hometowns, they will make us self-quarantine for 14 days without pay when we return,” she said. “I think the best option now is to stay where we are.”
Free Trade Union deputy president Mann Senghak told RFA that the government should have given workers advanced notice before the issuing the order, adding that they are unhappy about the ban.
Meanwhile, he said, he is concerned over the risk of the coronavirus spreading among workers and affecting their livelihoods.
“We are afraid that if workers infected with COVID-19 go to their factory, the factory will have to close,” he said.
Analyst Kim Sok told RFA that Hun Sen had failed to prepare Cambodia ahead of the outbreak and is now “overreacting.”
He said Hun Sen’s travel ban would do little to help the country’s workers, who on Tuesday were told that they would only receive U.S. $70 in monthly wages if they are laid off by factories hit with supply chain disruptions due to the outbreak, instead of the U.S. $115—or 60 percent of their wages—they were promised by the government in February.
“Hun Sen is tricking the workers—he can’t afford to pay them when they are laid off, so he is asking them to continue working [through the Khmer New Year travel ban],” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.