Asian governments including Cambodia have been called upon by a group of 74 human rights and media organizations “to release every jailed journalist” amid the growing fears of Covid-19 infections spreading in overcrowded prisons.
Led by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the organizations including Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA) and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, issued a statement on Monday calling for “the immediate release of all journalists imprisoned for their work.”
“Given that a staggering number of these imprisoned journalists are held in jails across the Asian continent, we are reiterating that call to your respective countries at this time of grave public health concern,” the groups said.
A CPJ report from December 1 found 63 journalists across Asia who had been imprisoned for doing their job, including 48 in China, 12 in Vietnam, two in India, and one in Myanmar, according to the statement. From then until March 31 five of them — four in China and one in Vietnam — were released, it said. But at least five other journalists were also imprisoned in the same time period.
Among those are Cambodian journalist Sovann Rithy, who was sent to pre-trial detention this month after being charged with “incitement” simply for reporting on Covid-19 advice from Prime Minister Hun Sen to motorbike taxi drivers.
The statement notes Rithy’s case, in particular, and says that no journalist should be subjected to severe health penalties — including risk of death from a Covid-19 infection — in overcrowded jails like Cambodia’s simply for doing their job.
“We urge you to release every jailed journalist in your respective countries and to protect the free press and the free flow of information at this crucial time,” it said.
“Journalism must not carry a death sentence.”
Chhim Thida, the director of Phnom Penh’s PJ prison, where Rithy is imprisoned, could not be reached for comment. However, Yoeun Thanrath, the administration chief at the PJ, prison said that he did not see any issues with Rithy’s jailing.
“Sovann Rithy’s health is fine,” Thanrath said.
“If he gets sick, the prison will bring him to the hospital.”
Chan Kimseng, the director-general of the general department of prisons at the Ministry of Interior, said that Rithy’s health was fine and that he did not appear to be sick. He said he would only release the journalist upon orders from a court.
“It depends on the court and whatever how they decide on him,” he said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that the request from the 73 groups to release Rithy for reporting on Hun Sen’s speech did not fit within the law.
“This request does not comply with Cambodian law because Sovann Rithy’s case is under court processing,” Malin said, explaining that he thought it would be more useful for the CPJ to educate journalists to be more professional.
“I suggest to all journalists to respect their professionalism and Cambodian law because it is not only amid the Covid-19 disease or outside the Covid-19 disease period, the authorities will always take action in accordance with the law.”
Ny Sokha, head of monitoring for rights group Adhoc, said the impact of jailing journalists like Rithy at a time like this simply for reporting on news would have a chilling impact on other journalists as they consider how to report on Covid-19.
“We urge and urge the government: Please release them, including also the human right defenders and land activists,” Sokha said, adding officials unhappy with a journalist’s reporting could simply “ask them to correct” their mistakes.
Otherwise, he said, the impacts on free flows of information would be too much.
“If they do things like this, it will make journalists scared and break their spirit.”