The Battambang Appeal Court on Tuesday upheld the provincial court’s guilty verdict against a journalist who criticized the government’s use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines.
Kao Piseth, a 32-year-old journalist who writes for the online publication Siem Reap Tanhetkar (Breaking News), was sentenced to two years in prison earlier this year for “incitement to commit crimes” and obstruction of the implementation of measures to prevent COVID-19.
The World Health Organization has authorized the emergency use of Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm – the vaccines Piseth criticized.
However, some activists are worried the journalist is instead being targeted for previous anti-government posts on his social media, including one where he said the ruling party should step down and the international community should cut all aid to the Hun Sen government.
‘’It has been almost one year that Kao Piseth has already served in prison. Piseth urged the court of appeal to reduce his sentence, but sadly the court did not take it into any consideration,” said Noun Piseth, a lawyer from the Cambodia Center for Independent Media (CCIM).
The lawyer said Piseth had not known he was committing an offense by making the comments regarding the vaccines. He said he would discuss with his client whether to now take the matter to the Supreme Court.
Piseth is not the only person who’s been charged under a law aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation during the pandemic. Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced he had directed authorities to detain a Tik Tok user who’d posted misinformation about COVID-19.
‘’If you don’t want to be jailed, don’t do this because this was not funny, it was frightening the public and this is not freedom of speech,” the prime minister said at National Fisheries Day activities in Banteay Meanchey province.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) told CamboJA that his group’s Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project recorded 15 arrests and eight arrest warrants issued against individuals for comments they made about COVID-19 in 2021.
She said the Prime Minister’s warning was ‘’concerning.” While disinformation is a problem, she stressed that “due to the subjectivity of what constitutes fake news, there is a real risk that criminal sanctions will be misused.”
Nop Vy, executive director of CamboJA, said Piseth had simply expressed his opinion. He said the authorities should take the opportunity to raise awareness about the vaccine.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s warnings will make people afraid to voice criticism online, he said.
‘’Then we’ll lose people’s participation which is the most important indicator in a democratic society,” he said.
‘’From my perspective, the government should also allocate enough budget to train people in Media Information and Digital Literacy,” he added.
In 2021, there were 49 acts of harassment against 96 journalists, according to CamboJA’s annual report on the state of Cambodian journalism, which was published last month. Forty-two of those journalists were detained and imprisoned. The number of such incidents had increased by 40 percent since 2020.
Violence continues to be a significant risk for journalists, according to the same report. Thirty-eight of the 96 journalists who experienced harassment had come under attack or been threatened with violence while working in the field.
‘’The research shows that most of the journalists who were arrested in 2021 were charged with incitement to commit felony or extortion,” the report said.