The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has convicted and sentenced newspaper publisher Ros Sokhet to 18 months in prison for using sensational language in Facebook posts criticizing government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The “Cheat Khmer” newspaper publisher was arrested in June for the critical Facebook posts and is the second conviction of a journalist in the last month, after TVFB founder Sovann Rithy was given an 18-month suspended sentence, again for incitement.
Judge Yi Sokvouch on Wednesday handed Sokhet an 18-month sentence, of which he has already served close to five months. Sokhet was also given a $500 fine as well.
Sam Sokong, Sokhet’s defence lawyer, said he was disappointed at the decision and was preparing to file an appeal at the Court of Appeals.
“I think it is an injustice that the court did not give him a reduced sentence or release him on bail because he has admitted to his crime,” he said. “Secondly, the court should reduce his sentence in order to allow him to treat his disease.”
During Sokhet’s trial in October, Sokvouch read out eight Facebook posts, including one where the journalist criticized Hun Sen for not helping indebted Cambodians struggling to pay back their loans and another which claimed the prime minister’s son-in-law, Dy Vichea, was phone tapping Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Vichea works at the Internal Security Department at the Interior Ministry.
Sam Vandy, who heads the Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s anti-cybercrime unit, testified in court that his department’s analysis revealed that Sokhet had intended to malign government officials and cause social instability.
For his part, Sokhet, who has been dealing with a serious heart condition and was seen at the trial with an intravenous drip, said he had apologized to Hun Sen and was hoping for leniency on account of his illness.
While pleading guilty, Sokhet refused to accept that his posts were part of some larger conspiracy lead by the former opposition party against the government.
Sokhet’s wife, Chun Sovoeun, 35, was upset that her husband will remain in prison and hoped that he would be released to treat his health concerns.
“I am afraid for his health conditions, especially while he remains in prison,” Sovoeun said, pointing to his heart problems, high blood pressure and other diseases.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, expressed concern over the case’s potential to curtail press freedoms and affect the work of journalists in the country.
“It is a threat to freedom of the press,” he said, adding that Sokhet’s posts were his personal opinion.
However, Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn disagreed with the characterization of Sokhet’s alleged crimes, dismissing concerns the government was curtailing press freedoms and.
“Journalists are free to carry on their professional work everywhere in the Kingdom,” he said.
He added that journalists have to be answerable before the law for their work. Supporters of Sokhet have said that the government could have asked for a correction based on the Law on the Press rather than use the Criminal Code.
Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA) recorded 59 journalists from January to October who had been the victims of violence, arrest, death or court complaints. Of those, 27 were arrested, seven had faced violence and one died, in what police called a traffic accident.
Nop Vy, executive director at CamboJA, echoed Sothoeuth’s concerns that the conviction of Sokhet threatened press freedoms and the expression of personal opinions.
“It is threatened to freedom of press and also impacted like cracking down on activists who have been used social media for exercising opinion due to constructive criticism,” he said.
“This conviction is a burden impacting the promotion of freedom of expression and press freedoms in Cambodia,” Vy said.
Sokhet has previously been convicted and sentenced to two years in 2009 for disseminating disinformation and for sending disparaging text messages to media
personality, and self-styled government advisor, Soy Sopheap.
Next week, the Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court will deliver a verdict in the trial of radio station owner Sok Oudom, who has been charged with incitement for allegedly instigating villagers in a land dispute with military officials.