The director of online news outlet TVFB, Sovann Rithy, was arrested Tuesday night for reporting on advice from Prime Minister Hun Sen to motorbike taxi drivers to sell their vehicles if the coronavirus crisis leaves them broke.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police chief Sar Theth said Rithy was arrested in Sen Sok district for a Facebook post that quoted Hun Sen as saying during his Tuesday press conference that: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”
“We arrested him as he was involved with incitement to cause chaos and harm social security,” Theth said, explaining that Rithy was arrested under article 495 of the criminal code and sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday.
Article 495 of the Criminal Code covers acts of incitement to commit felonies and can attract a prison sentence of six months to two years as well as fines of between one and four million riel (about $250 to $1,000). It was unclear how the TVFB director’s post constituted an act of incitement to commit a felony.
Municipal court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said Rithy was being questioned.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith issued a letter on Wednesday saying that TVFB’s media license had been terminated and its website shut down over the matter. TVFB had been granted a license to publish on January 3, 2017, it said, but the ministry revoked it as the site’s activities had impacted social order.
Meas Sophorn, a ministry spokesman, said Rithy violated the terms of his news license by selectively quoting a Hun Sen joke. “Please, all journalists, you need to respect the media law and journalism ethics with professionalism,” he said.
However, Nop Vy, executive director of Cambodian Journalist Alliance (CamboJA), said authorities should rethink the wisdom of criminal charges for a reporter and try a softer approach if they believe his reporting lacked context.
“In fact, if he just disseminated or broadcast news, they should use the media law to implement against a journalist who has made a mistake in their disseminating or broadcasting, and so they can ask them to correct it,” Vy said.
Vy added he believed the authorities should reconsider whether it was in fact Rithy’s intention to incite “chaos” with his Facebook post. He said that if the government felt aggrieved by any selective reporting of speeches by the prime minister, they had avenues to make that clear to Rithy without jailing him.
“What is the important point, I think, is that his broadcast did not cause any damage the national interest or any discrimination, so I request the government review this issue again,” Vy said. “Just educate him, and they can release him.”
Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) president Pen Bona was less forgiving, though, and said countries all over the world were pushing journalists to rally behind officials during the coronavirus crisis instead of engaging in dissent.
“Samdech Hun Sen spoke for about four hours so why did he take only one paragraph to make drama. We should not do things like this,” Bona said, before appearing to defend the charges against Rithy of incitement to cause chaos.
“He made drama to make motorbike taxi drivers angry,” the CCJ director said. “We will wait to see the result of the questioning to see what is going on.”
Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC) president Huy Vannak, who is also a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said that he reserved judgment.
“About the TVFB case, he is in the authority’s hands,” Vannak said. “We are studying the facts and legislation.”
Appearing outside the municipal court on Wednesday while being escorted by police, Rithy asked gathered reporters to make sure his wife was looked after while he was in custody. He will appear before the court again on Thursday.