Journalist charged and jailed for relaying Hun Sen’s coronavirus advice3 min read

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Sovann Rithy, director general of TVFB, arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court escorted by police on Wednesday. Panha Chhorpoan
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According to an order from investigating judge Key Manera, Rithy was charged under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code and sent to Phnom Penh’s P.J. prison for pre-trial detention. If found guilty, he faces up to two years in prison.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday charged Sovann Rithy, the head of online news outlet TVFB, with “incitement to commit felonies” for a Facebook post in which he reported the advice from Prime Minister Hun Sen that motorbike taxi drivers sell their vehicles if left penniless as coronavirus hits the economy.

The Tuesday Facebook post featured an image of a motorbike taxi driver with a quote taken from Hun Sen’s press conference earlier that day: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.” Rithy also posted a video commentary on the same night, but his page was taken down on Information Ministry orders.

In response to his son’s imprisonment pending trial, the journalist’s father, Sovann Sokha, posted a video to YouTube saying that he wished to apologize to the government on behalf of his son, explaining that Rithy had made a “mistake” in quoting Hun Sen. He asked for mercy for his son, whose wife is pregnant.

“Please, leaders, forgive my son, because the mistake of my son was my mistake, in that I did not educate him and give him good advice,” Sokha said.

Sokha said that if his son was let free he would work to “educate” him better.

However, Ny Sokha, the head of monitoring for local rights group Adhoc, said it was not clear what Rithy had done wrong. Sokha said Rithy was a journalist for an outlet properly registered at the Information Ministry and simply quoted an extract from the prime minister’s public press conference on Tuesday. 

“We should not be charging journalists with incitement to commit felonies, because he just disseminated or broadcast [a public speech] like this,” Sokha said. “If they do something like this, it is a threat to other journalists.”

Sokha said if Rithy had made errors in his quotation of Hun Sen’s words, the government should ask him to correct his reporting in line with the media law.  

“If a journalist just disseminates or broadcasts [speeches] and is jailed like this, it will have an impact on the freedom of journalists,” Sokha said.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement on Wednesday demanding the immediate release of Rithy and the reinstatement of TVFB’s media license, news website and social media accounts, including its popular Facebook page.

“We call on the Cambodian justice system to put an end to this utterly Kafkaesque case by releasing Sovann Rithy at once, and we call on the government to reinstate TVFB’s media licence,” said Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia Pacific desk for RSF, in the statement. “Imprisoning a journalist for quoting a statement by the prime minister word for word is more than absurd.” 

“The Covid-19 crisis must not be used as pretext for getting rid of journalists who do not blindly toe the government line,” he added.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap also said Rithy should not be in any legal trouble just because he “accurately quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen who had made a statement during a press conference.”

“The authorities have claimed the statement was taken out of context and was therefore intended to incite social unrest, however it is unclear how Rithy’s repetition of the statement itself could provoke criminal activity any more so than the original statement spoken by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Sopheap said.

“Media outlets should not be arbitrarily shut down, sanctioned or suspended for sharing information in alignment with these rights,” she added. 

“Rithy’s arrest, the revocation of his licences and the forced closure of his website far surpasses what is necessary or proportionate to the situation and is therefore in direct violation of international human rights law.”

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