Cambodian Rappers Handed Lengthy Jail Terms For Dissing Government

2020-12-22
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Cambodian Rappers Handed Lengthy Jail Terms For Dissing Government Long Puthera in a promotional photo posted to his YouTube page.
YouTube/Long Puthera

A court in Cambodia on Tuesday sentenced two rappers who wrote rhymes critical of the government to lengthy prison terms, prompting a rights group to condemn the verdict as a form of “intimidation” against outspoken members of the country’s youth.

The Siem Reap Provincial Court handed Kea Sokun, 22, an 18-month jail term and Long Putheara, 17, a five-month jail term, for “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code, court officials said.

The two young men were arrested in September in Siem Reap province after releasing songs criticizing the Cambodian government’s handling of its border dispute with Vietnam and suggesting that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lack of leadership had led to Cambodia’s economic decline.

Long Putheara, who had already spent more than three months in pre-trial detention and apologized to the government, was released Tuesday after having the rest of his sentence suspended. Kea Sokun was given a harsher sentence because he refused to express remorse.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service following the verdict, Kea Sokun’s sister Kea Channa called his sentence “unjust,” and claimed that the court had pressured him to admit his guilt, but said he declined to do so.

“They pressured him to apologize,” she said. “They detained him and forced him to admit to crimes that he did not commit. It is very unjust for Sokun.”

Kea Channa said her family is considering an appeal of Kea Sokun’s sentence.

RFA was unable to reach court officials for comment on the two cases.

Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with local rights group Licadho, called Tuesday’s verdict “a threat against youth artists” and said the court “should have never jailed the rappers in the first place.”

If anything, he added, the two young men should be “educated” instead of punished.

“The verdicts included very serious punishments for the two youths,” he said. “This case is aimed at intimidating young people who have talent and contribute to society.”

Radio reporter jailed

Also on Tuesday, the Kampong Chhang Provincial Court sentenced Sok Oudom, the owner of local media outlet Rithysen Radio, to 20 months in prison and fined him 20 million riels (U.S. $5,000) for “incitement” after he reported on a land dispute in the province.

Sok Oudom’s wife Nuth Svanthou told RFA that her husband is innocent of the charges he was convicted of and had expressed disappointment over the verdict.

Nuth Svanthou said her husband had reported on a land dispute involving a military officer in a protected forest—a case that other journalists had also covered. She said her husband should have been tried under the country’s press law, instead of the criminal code.

“Reporters need to speak the truth and not exaggerate it,” she said. “What he said is the truth, but he was jailed for it.”

Nuth Svanthou said that she is considering an appeal of the court verdict but lacks the funds to do so.

Sok Oudom was arrested on May 13 after he broadcast live on Facebook about a land dispute between villagers and a powerful military officer.

National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Koeun previously told RFA that Sok Oudom “abused his profession” by inciting people against the local authorities. He said the arrest has “nothing to do with press freedom.”

Following Sok Oudom’s arrest, the Ministry of Information also withdrew the Rithysen Radio’s operating license, saying the station broadcast “exaggerated content.”

Local media watchdog CamboJa’s executive director Nop Vy echoed Nuth Svanthou’s concerns over the country’s courts using the criminal code rather than the press law to prosecute journalists.

He said that Sok Oudom had broadcast the news in line with his profession, but the court “decided to jail him instead.”

“Using the criminal code against reporters shows [the court] regards the media as the enemy and seeks to prosecute reporters,” he said. “Oudom’s case is very unjust.”

Media under fire

Three years ago, Hun Sen embarked on a crackdown on Cambodia’s political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 144th out of 180 countries in its 2020 report on global press freedom, citing the government’s expansion of a “system for cracking down on dissent.” More than 40 newspapers and magazines have been shuttered by the Ministry of Information since 1993.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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