Newspaper publisher Ros Sokhet pleaded guilty at his trial on Tuesday to sensationalizing Facebook posts about government officials as a way to attract readers, but denied being influenced by any individuals or groups.
The provincial journalist’s trial coincided with a Supreme Court appeal filed by former RFA reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who are challenging a lower court’s decision to reinvestigate their espionage charge; an appeal that was denied.
Ros Sokhet appeared at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with an intravenous drip because of a serious heart condition, for which he has received treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
He was arrested in June on incitement charges for posting critical content about government officials on the Facebook page of his newspaper, “Cheat Khmer,” which means Khmer Nation.
At the trial, Sokhet admitted to using provocative language to attract readers but denied the prosecution’s assertion that he was inciting readers on behalf of a third party.
“No, I decided [to post it] myself,” he said in court. “The headlines were very strong but the content wasn’t strong.”
During the trial, Judge Yi Sokvouch read out eight Facebook posts from “Cheat Khmer.” This included criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen for not helping indebted Cambodians struggling to pay back their loans and for claiming that Interior Ministry official Dy Vichea, who is also Hun Sen’s son-in-law, was phone tapping Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
Sam Vandy, who heads the Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s anti-cybercrime unit, said his officers had investigated and analyzed Sokhet’s posts and come to the conclusion that he had attempted to disturb social security and disrespect government officials.
“We have read the contents [of the posts] and it is characteristic of incitement and to disturb national security,” he said.
Sokhet informed the court that he had sent an apology letter to Hun Sen and was hoping for leniency on account of his illness. His lawyer, Sam Sokong, echoed Sokhet’s plea, adding that the posts were not an intentional attempt to incite people.
“Please judge, consider reducing the punishment and allowing him on bail to get treatment for his disease,” Sokong said.
The court will deliver its verdict on November 11. 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.
At the Supreme Court, the high court rejected an appeal made by former Radio Free Asia reporter Uon Chhin and Yeang Sotherain, who challenged a lower court’s decision to defer a verdict during their 2019 trial and instead ordered a reinvestigation into their case.
The two former journalists were arrested in 2017 for allegedly continuing to file stories for Radio Free Asia, even after it closed its Phnom Penh bureau. However, the U.S.-based broadcaster proactively ended its operations citing security issues and was not shut down by the government.
Presiding Judge Nil Non rejected the appeal and sided with the Appeal Court, which refused to overturn the lower court’s decision from last year.
“The Supreme Court [is] upholding the decision of the Court of Appeal,” he said, adding that there were no legal grounds for appealing the reinvestigation order.
Yeang Sothearin said he was disappointed with the decision but was aware that the case was political in nature.
“So, we are part of this political situation and I think that this decision was [taken] under political pressure,” he said.
He said that they would discuss with their lawyer ways to get the Phnom Penh Municipal judge to accelerate the reinvestigation and schedule a retrial.
Sam Chamroeun, the former reporters’ lawyer, said his clients had already been subjected to a more than two-year-long investigation and the process was infringing on their rights.
“We are dismayed by the Supreme Court decision and we can’t accept it,” he said.
Nop Vy, executive director at Cambodian Journalists Alliance, said the cases reflected cause for concern over press freedom in Cambodia, and would have an effect on reporters wanting to write about sensitive issues in the country. “The decision against RFA reporters shows a trend of restricting journalists who have carried out their work professionally and as independent journalists,” he said.