Prime Minister Hun Sen promised prison for those posting disinformation about the pandemic, referring to the recent arrest of a man who claimed on TikTok that Cambodia had seen a Covid-19 death.
“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,” he said. “I would like to warn anyone who takes the issue of Covid-19 as funny and makes public disorder will be arrested.”
Speaking at an event to mark National Fisheries Day in Banteay Meanchey province on July 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he had ordered provincial authorities to immediately arrest a Tik Tok user after he posted the video.
Hun Sen said that the man was posting disinformation about Covid-19, intending to make public confusion.
“So far, we don’t have even a single Covid patient in the hospital,” he said. “If we did not arrest him, it means that we did not implement the law.”
Hun Sen said while the world is fighting the false information, Cambodia is following suit and will not tolerate those who violate the law.
“Do not talk about freedom of expression, don’t accuse Hun Sen of just talking about prison and prison,” he said.
Local rights groups said while in a democratic society people have the right to freedom of expression, many members of the public lack an awareness of false information.
Am Sam Ath, operations director of rights group Licadho, said the dissemination of false information can undermine social stability. However, he said, most people lack the knowledge to identify which information is true or fake, which makes them vulnerable to the sharing of fake news.
“I observe that most people know how to use social media, but they do not know how to cross-check which information is real or fake, which would hurt them when sharing,” he said, adding that people should express their rights to expression ethically.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said any rights restrictions must comply with the international human rights principles.
“We need to see the case if it violated this principle [of international human rights], then we need to check if it really has an impact on public health,” she said.
She added that the government should try to make it possible for people to have access to specific information on public health as it is important to reduce false information in the public interest.
According to the Ministry of Health, in the last three days from June 28 to 30, Cambodia found 20 new Covid-19 cases of the Omicron variant, after reporting zero cases for more than 50 days. The total number of cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic started is 136,282.
Cambodia has more than 10 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine in stock and expects to receive another 20 million doses soon. Hun Sen said that Cambodia has signed to buy more than 104 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine in reserve for 2024–2026.
According to the Ministry of Health, more than 94 percent of the 16 million Cambodian population were vaccinated at least two doses.
Last year, seven former party members and activists of the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were sentenced to 18 months in prison on incitement charges over social media posts criticizing the government leadership over deaths caused by Covid-19.
They were sentenced in absentia based on Facebook posts published over the course of 2020. However, all the defendants fled Cambodia for fear of arrest.