Bangkok, April 9, 2020 — Cambodian authorities should immediately release journalist Sovann Rithy, drop all charges against him, and let his news outlet publish freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Police in the Sen Sok district of Phnom Penh, the capital, arrested Rithy, director of the TVFB news website, in the evening of April 7, according to news reports.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police chief Sar Theth said Rithy was detained under Article 495 of the criminal code, a provision that penalizes “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security,” the Cambodia Daily reported.
The charge stemmed from a post on Rithy’s personal Facebook page, where he has more than 450,000 followers and frequently posts his reporting, in which he quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen saying at a press conference that local motorcycle-taxi drivers should sell their vehicles if they go bankrupt due to the coronavirus crisis, and saying “the government does not have the ability to help,” according to that report.
Yesterday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Rithy under Article 495; if convicted, he could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to four million riels (US$1,000), reports said. The Ministry of Information also revoked TVFB’s media license yesterday, alleging that the outlet had “published information which contains incitement, affected social security, order and safety,” according to news reports.
Rithy is being held in pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciare prison, according to those reports.
“The criminal charge against journalist Sovann Rithy over his direct quotation of the prime minister marks a new press freedom low for Cambodia,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The charge should be dropped and journalists allowed to report freely on COVID-19 and any other newsworthy events concerning the nation’s government.”
CPJ called the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Department for comment, but no one answered the call.
Cambodia’s legislature is considering new state of emergency legislation to combat COVID-19 that, if passed as drafted, would ban the distribution of information that could “generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest,” “bring about damage to national security,” or “bring into being confusion about the state of emergency,” according to reports.
The draft legislation is currently being considered by the National Legislative Assembly and must also be approved by the Senate, Constitutional Council, and the nation’s monarch before being enacted into law, reports said.