Cambodia: Rights group concerns over arrests & harassment of activists amid the Covid-19 pandemic measures

In late January, Cambodia's Prime Minister made a televised statement about the spread of misinformation regarding the COVID-19 virus outbreak originating from Wuhan, China. He also threatened to “kick out” reporters or officials seen wearing a face mask.

Since the outbreak and ongoing spread of the Covid-19 in Cambodia, the Cambodian government has taken more agressive measures to contain the virus. As a consequence, rights group has reported a number of cases related to arrests of activists and individuals allegedly speading fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest incident is a direct warning of arrest made by the Cambodia's Prime Minister towards a deputy director of LICADHO, a local human rights NGO, over his comments on govt's responses to curb the pandemic. 

Photo credit: The Phnom Penh Post

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21 May 2020

Cambodia: 133 CSOs call for the release of detained journalists and an end to media crackdown

Author: Narim Khuon, Khmer Times

"Groups want charges against journos dropped", 19 May 2020

Some 130 civil society groups and a union ... called on the government and court officials to drop charges against journalists Sok Oudom and Sovann Rithy, noting that officials have been targeting journalists over their reporting.

The groups, including Cambodian Journalists Alliance, Licadho, Adhoc and Center for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, issued a statement appealing to the Kampong Chhnang provincial and Phnom Penh municipal courts to drop the charges against them.

“We, the undersigned civil society groups, urgently call on the government to drop all charges against imprisoned journalists Sok Oudom and Sovann Rithy and to halt harassment of other journalists in Cambodia who are facing prosecution for their critical reporting,” read the statement...

..., the Kampong Chhnang court charged Oudom for incitement to commit felony after allegedly inciting villagers to encroach on state land within Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.

This follows the arrest of popular journalist Rithy ... for allegedly misquoting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s statement on the government’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

... Nop Vy, executive director of Cambodian Journalists Alliance, ... expressed concern that freedom of the press has been restricted.

“We have seen recently the arrests of some journalists as well as the revoking of their media operation licences. We think that it is not a positive sign for the improvement of a free press,” he said...

Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said ... he encouraged the civil society groups to provide legal assistance to the journalists rather than issue a statement while their cases are proceeding in court...

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21 May 2020

Cambodia: Authorities arrest & charge another journalist & local radio station owner with incitement as media crackdown continues during COVID-19 crisis

Author: Narin Sun, VOA

"Kampong Chhnang Radio Owner Charged for “Incitement”", 15 May 2020

The Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court has charged and sent radio owner Sok Oudom to pre-trial detention …, days after the Ministry of Information revoked the station’s media license for “exaggerated news reporting.”

Chhuon Sivin, a Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court spokesperson, confirmed that Sok Oudom had been charged and sent to pre-trial detention. The spokesperson added that Sok Oudom was guilty of “inciting villagers to grab military and state land for private ownership,” but provided no other details about the case…

Long Sitha, the prosecutor in the case, said that the radio station owner was charged under Article 495 of the Criminal Code, again refusing to divulge details of the alleged crime…

The Ministry of Information … revoked the media license for Rithysen Radio News Station on FM99.75 and the station’s website for allegedly “publishing information which is exaggerated information, contains incitement to violence, provocation to commit discrimination and provocation to cause social insecurity and chaos.”

… Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator for rights group ADHOC in Kampong Chhnang, said the incitement charge was frequently employed by the government to silence critics.

“People asked him to report their stories and he just broadcast the stories. It is his right and freedom,” Sam Chankea said…

Sok Oudom posted stories on the Facebook page named Rithysen Radio News Station, often covering topics such as land disputes and clashes between the people and police officials. He also commented on court cases in the provincial court and even highlighted a local land dispute allegedly involving police officials…

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17 May 2020

Cambodia: 66 CSOs call on govt. to amend Law on a State of Emergency to protect civic freedoms and human rights

Author: CCHR & Others

"CSOs voice concern over state of emergency law", 14 May 2020

A government spokesman said civil society organisations (CSOs) don’t seem to understand the purpose and content of the state of emergency law.

The remarks were made by Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin after CSOs repeatedly requested that the government amend the law as they worried that it threatened human rights.

A joint statement released by 66 CSOs and communities … called on the government to undertake immediate and meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure compliance with Cambodia’s human rights obligations.

“While we acknowledge that the government has stated that its goal in drafting this law is to protect public health during the Covid-19 pandemic, we, the undersigned CSOs and communities are very concerned that this law grants the government excessive powers to restrict fundamental freedoms and therefore poses a serious threat to human rights,” the statement read.

It said the state of emergency law had been hastily passed and without sufficient consultation with relevant stakeholders…

The CSOs request a revisit after they observed that while Cambodia experienced the Covid-19 problem, the government and police arrested 40 people and accused them of sharing fake news on the virus.

Among them, VFB online journalist Sovann Rithy was also arrested and had his licence revoked.

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6 May 2020

Cambodia: 201 NGOs & communities call on authorities to cease harassment of community representatives over petition for support from govt. during COVID-19 crisis

Author: LICADHO & Others

"Stop Harassment of Community Representatives over COVID-19 Petition", 04 May 2020

We the undersigned groups decry the harassment of community representatives from across Cambodia ... These community representatives were arbitrarily detained for seven hours and interrogated while trying to submit a petition asking for additional government assistance to vulnerable communities during the Covid-19 crisis.

More than 30 community representatives from across Cambodia gathered in Phnom Penh to submit the petition, which has life-saving requests such as asking the government to distribute medical supplies to vulnerable communities; suspend debts from microfinance institutions (MFIs) and private money lenders; and provide direct economic assistance, including suspending rental fees for poor and informal workers and providing stay-at-home payments.

During this process, community representatives were repeatedly asked by authorities, including police officers, … Many questions focused on the community members’ microfinance debt, and some representatives were asked about their personal financial situation and were required to provide proof of debts to MFIs to district authorities. At least two community representatives were additionally summonsed and harassed after they returned home to their communities by local authorities.

These interrogations are insulting and appear predicated on the mistrust of vocal communities who actively exercise their right to freely express themselves.

…, community representatives gathered in Phnom Penh but were denied permission to submit the petition to the Council of Ministers.

… At the end of the interrogation, community representatives were coerced into thumbprinting documents that seek to restrict their right to continue advocating on behalf of their communities prior to being allowed to leave the district office.

… We strongly decry their treatment at the hands of authorities.

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30 April 2020

Cambodia: Acting Head of State promulgates Law on Administration of the Nation during a State of Emergency; while NGOs raise serious human rights concerns

Author: Sokhean Ben, Khmer Times

"State of Emergency draft signed into law", 30 April 2020

Acting Head of State Say Chhum ... signed the draft law on “State of Emergency” into legislation after the Constitutional Council of Cambodia unanimously approved it ..., a decree ... revealed...

CPP spokesman and senator Sok Eysan said ... the law will take effect on the same day of its signing...

“The possibility of declaring a state of emergency is low as what Samdech Prime Minister said,” he said. “But if the situation changes, I believe we would declare it immediately.”...

The law, which comes amid the global health crisis, consists of five chapters and 12 articles and is based on Article 22 new of the Constitution.

Article 5 of the emergency law stipulates the government may put in place mechanisms or delegate relevant authorities to use military forces in guaranteeing the enforcement of the law.

“In cases of war or any other circumstances in which national security is seriously jeopardised, management of the nation by the Royal Government may be implemented by a martial regime,” the article states.

Meanwhile, international NGO Human Rights Watch said in a statement ... that provisions of the “State of Emergency” Law raise several human rights concerns, including the possibility of indefinite renewals of a state of emergency and the wide scope of unfettered martial powers granted to the executive body without independent oversight.

“The state of emergency law will be a disaster for the human rights of the Cambodian people, who face having their civil and political rights stripped away,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW...

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20 April 2020

Cambodia: Senate approves controversial draft Law on a State of Emergency amid international criticism of restricting fundamental freedoms & human rights

Author: Narin Sun, VOA

"Senate Approves Controversial ‘State of Emergency’ Law, Heads to Constitutional Council", 18 April 2020

The one-party controlled Senate unanimously voted … to pass the draft “state of emergency” legislation, a law widely criticized for giving the government widespread powers to curtail fundamental freedoms and rights.

The draft legislation, which passed the Senate – a deliberative body – without any amendments, would allow for the curbing of fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, association, and assembly – all enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution – and has been widely criticized by rights groups.

Senate spokesperson and Senator Mam Bunneang said the draft was passed by 54 of the 62 senators in the upper house, without any changes. Eight senators were absent…

The law now heads to the Constitutional Council after which it will be signed into law, likely by acting Head of State and Senate President Say Chhum, in the absence of King Norodom Sihamoni…

Koeut Rith called anyone who criticized the law “not a friend of Cambodia,” while still touting his intent to protect rights, including freedom of expression.

But Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said in a statement on Friday that “the law endangers human rights” including the right to privacy, free speech and criminalized peaceful assembly.

“The broadly worded language on the protection of national security and public order, ostensibly aimed at addressing COVID-19, can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” read the statement.

The law should be more focused on addressing public health needs while also protecting fundamental freedoms, added Rhona Smith…

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15 April 2020

Cambodia: UN experts send a communication to Cambodian govt. to express concerns of restrictions on fundamental freedoms over draft law on a state of emergency

Author: UN Independent Experts

"UN experts sent a communication expressing concerns over Cambodia’s draft law on the management of the nation during state of emergency", 9 April 2020

UN experts sent a communication expressing concerns over Cambodia’s draft law on the management of the nation during state of emergency.

According to the independent experts, if adopted as is, the law may restrict the right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and right to movement as provided in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

They asked the Government of Cambodia to provide information on measures taken to ensure the compliance of the draft law with Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights law and standards. Read the communication sent by the UN experts to the Government of Cambodia ...

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11 April 2020

Cambodia: Rights group concerns about press freedom while Phnom Penh Municipal Court charges a journalist with incitement after posting PM's comments on his Facebook page

Author: Miriam Deprez, The Globe

"Cambodian journalist’s arrest part of regional crackdown on virus coverage", 10 April 2020

Human rights organisations have slammed the arrest of a Cambodian journalist who was charged with criminal incitement after posting a quote from Prime Minister Hun Sen to his personal Facebook page...

Sovann Rithy, a reporter and publisher of the TVFB social media news platform, was arrested ... after publishing a direct quote from the prime minister suggesting motorbike taxis could sell their vehicles to make their livelihood during the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help”, Rithy quoted Hun Sen as saying ...

Daniel Bastard, head of Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told ... that the arrest is part of a “clearly very worrying trend”.

“We see many governments have passed some decrees or laws under the pretext of combating false information or ‘fake news’ in order to impose some very draconian legislation.”

... Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap said Rithy’s arrest and indictment violates the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Sopheap believes the criminal case against him will have “chilling repercussions” for media freedom across Cambodia...

Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director Phil Robertson issued a statement calling the charges “bogus” and urged the Cambodian authorities to release Rithy and others detained for expressing their online opinions about Covid-19.

“Even in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, arresting a journalist for quoting the prime minister marks a new low for press freedom,” Robertson stated...

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9 April 2020

Cambodia: International Commission of Jurists warns that Cambodia’s draft Law on a State of Emergency violates rule of law principles & human rights

Author: ICJ

"Cambodia: State of Emergency bill violates the rule of law", 8 April 2020

The ICJ … warned that Cambodia’s draft Law on National Administration in the State of Emergency (“State of Emergency bill”) violates basic rule of law principles and human rights, and called on the Cambodian government to urgently withdraw or amend the bill in accordance with international human rights law and standards.

…, government spokesperson Phay Siphan explained that the government needed to bring a State of Emergency law in force to combat the COVID-19 outbreak as “Cambodia is a rule of law country”. The bill is now before the National Assembly and, if passed by the Assembly, will likely be considered in an extraordinary session convened by the Senate. The law will come into force once it has been signed by the King – or in his absence, the acting Head of State, Senate President Say Chhum.

“The Cambodian government has long abused the term “rule of law” to justify bringing into force laws or regulations that are then used to suppress free expression and target critics. This bill is no different,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“Any effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak must not only protect the rights to health and life, but be implemented in accordance with Cambodia’s human rights obligations and basic principles of the rule of law.”…

“If passed in its current form, this bill will reinforce the prevailing lack of accountability which defines the government in Cambodia. The government’s time would be better spent developing genuine public health policy responses to the crisis.”

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9 April 2020

Cambodia: Police & authorities arrest a popular journalist and revoke his media license after he reports direct words of PM responding to Covid-19 measures

Author: Reporters Without Borders

"Cambodian reporter jailed for quoting PM’s comment about Covid-19", 8 April 2020

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demands the immediate release of a Cambodian journalist who was arrested … for reporting a comment by Prime Minister Hun Sen about the coronavirus crisis. RSF also calls on the authorities to reinstate the website’s media licence, which has been rescinded.

Sovann Rithy, the director of the TVFB news site, was arrested by the Phnom Penh municipal police yesterday evening on a charge of “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code, police chief Sar Theth said.

His crime was to have reported a comment … that the prime minister made ... As Sovann Rithy accurately reported in a Facebook post, Hun Sen said: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”

The information ministry reacted by ordering the revocation of TVFB’s media licence on the grounds that its editor had “selected” the prime minister’s quote. Sovann Rithy is due to appear before a municipal court ...

“We call on the Cambodian justice system to put an end to this utterly … case by releasing Sovann Rithy at once, and we call on the government to reinstate TVFB’s media licence,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“Imprisoning a journalist for quoting a statement by the prime minister word for word is more than absurd. The Covid-19 crisis must not be used as pretext for getting rid of journalists who do not blindly toe the government line.”…

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