The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.

In April of this year, Cambodian journalist Sovann Rithy was arrested after quoting Prime Minister Hun Sen in a post about COVID-19. 

Rithy, who is the director of the online news site TVFB, quoted an excerpt from a speech made by Hun Sen on his personal Facebook page. The Prime Minister stated: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for money. The government does not have the ability to help.” 

Rithy was charged with incitement to commit a felony. 

The government insisted that this was intended as a joke and charged Rithy with incitement to commit a felony, in addition to revoking TVFB’s broadcasting license on the grounds that it broadcasts information which is a threat to the security, public order and safety of society.

On May 13, Sok Oudom, the owner of Rithysen Radio News Station in Cambodia, was arrested and also charged with incitement to commit a felony. The charge came after a news broadcast aired about a local land dispute. Rithysen Radio News Station’s media license was later revoked as authorities claimed it used its platform to spread news that is exaggerates, incites violence and causes a threat to social security. 

On June 25, Ros Sokhet, the publisher of Cheat Khmer, was arrested under those same charges. The day before his arrest, Sokhet had posted criticism of Hun Sen on his personal Facebook page.

These arrests of journalists are an unsettling reality which points to the intense clamping down on media freedom in Cambodia which began in 2017. 

These arrests of journalists are an unsettling reality which points to the intense clamping down on media freedom in Cambodia which began in 2017. 

In 2017, the independent Cambodia Daily shut down after being accused of failing to pay taxes. The Ministry of Information also forcibly closed down 19 radio stations in the same year. The Cambodian office of the National Democratic Institute, which works to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide, was shuttered as well. 

An additional crackdown on media freedom and freedom of speech by the Cambodian government is the lèse-majesté law, which makes it a crime to insult the royal family. In other words, it is an offense against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or the state. This offense is punishable for up to one to five years in prison. In 2018, The Ministry of Information warned Cambodian media outlets that they should not publish or distribute content that insult the royal family. If they do so, it will fall under lèse-majesté and they will face severe repercussions.

The lèse-majesté goes against international human rights laws by criminalizing freedom of speech. 

Furthermore, the Cambodian government often uses the term “fake news” to silence government critics. This is a threat to media freedom and freedom of speech because if the term is not strictly defined, the government could claim that any information is fake news. Thereby, shutting down possibly valuable access to information. 

The lèse-majesté goes against international human rights laws by criminalizing freedom of speech. 

With the advent of social media, it has become easier for journalists to share their criticisms and opinions publicly such as in the instance of Rithy and Sokhet. However, Cambodia is taking steps to ensure the digital space is regulated and restricted as well.

A draft of a cybercrime law raises concerns about the restrictions of freedom of speech and internet freedom. VOA Khmer obtained an August draft of the cybercrime law, in which it details that authorities are permitted to fine or imprison people who internationally make false statements online which could be interpreted as a threat to public safety. If convicted, a person could spend a maximum of three years in prison. 

The issue that arises is: how can it be proven that someone made intentionally false statements? It can’t be. Virtually anyone could be accused of distributing fake news and false statements purposefully. If implemented, this law makes every Cambodian citizen vulnerable to arrest. 

The issue that arises is: how can it be proven that someone made intentionally false statements?

Similarly, the use of terms such as “incitement to commit a felony” and “threat to social security” allows for open-ended interpretations. This effectively grants the Cambodian government the ability to arrest and convict journalists for any criticism against the government. 

Media freedom, as well as freedom of speech, is an international human right. It is the duty of the press and media to serve the public, not the state. Media outlets can only serve the public by informing them with news and information objectively, without pervasive government influence. And without fear enforced by government actions – such as the arresting of journalists for daring to do their jobs.

 

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https://thetempest.co/?p=156081
Tamia Adolph

By Tamia Adolph

Editorial Fellow