Police block motorists from passing a checkpoint due to COVID-19 restrictions in Phnom Penh on April 17, 2021. Journalist Khou Piseth was detained after posting on Facebook about the government's handling of COVID-19. (AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy)

Cambodian reporter Khou Piseth detained for criminal incitement

Bangkok, July 27, 2021 – Cambodian authorities should immediately release journalist Khou Piseth and drop any pending charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Piseth, a reporter with the local Siem Reap Tannhektar news website, was arrested on July 14 in the western city of Battambang after posting messages critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on his personal Facebook account, according to news reports.

He was charged with incitement to commit a felony under Cambodia’s penal code and “obstruction of measure enforcement” under Cambodia’s COVID-19 law enacted in March 2021, and is being held in pre-trial detention, those reports said. 

“Cambodian authorities must immediately release journalist Khou Piseth and stop using bogus incitement charges to harass and intimidate journalists,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Reporters and commentators must be allowed to air critical views without fear of reprisal to effectively check and balance the government’s management of the pandemic.”  

In Facebook posts, Piseth asked the international community to take action against Prime Minister Hun Sen and to cut off foreign aid to the country, according to reports. His posts also questioned the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines, which he claimed the government was using as a favor to China, the reports said.

Piseth’s Facebook account has been deleted since his arrest, the reports said, and CPJ was unable to review it.

According to news reports, Piseth faces a potential combined five years in prison if convicted under both Article 495 of the penal code, which outlines charges for criminal incitement, and under Article 11 of the COVID-19 law, or the “Law on Preventative Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous, and Contagious Diseases,” which bans “obstruction of measure enforcement,” a provision authorities have used to suppress free speech by charging individuals who criticize the government’s vaccine policy, Human Rights Watch and other groups have said.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Information did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on Piseth’s arrest and detention. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for Piseth’s defense lawyer or employer. 

According to CPJ documentation and news reports, at least three other journalists have been sentenced to jail time for criminal incitement since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.