The director of online news outlet TVFB was sentenced to 18 months in prison on October 5 after he reported on advice from Prime Minister Hun Sen to motorbike taxi drivers, telling them to sell their vehicles if the Covid-19 crisis is causing them financial distress.
TVFB Director Sovann Rithy was arrested for incitement in Sen Sok district on April 7 over a post on his personal Facebook profile in which he quoted Hun Sen as saying during a press conference: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Li Sokha on October 5 handed the defendant 18-month sentence, the remainder of which has been suspended after six months served in pre-trial detention, according to court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said.
“[The judge] has ordered the release of the defendant today counting time served from the time of his arrest,” Kimlong said.
Article 495 of the Criminal Code, with which Rithy was charged, covers acts of incitement to commit a felony and carries a prison sentence of six months to two years as well as fines of between 1 and 4 million riel (about $250 to $1,000).
While sitting in the courthouse, Rithy and his relatives declined to comment because Rithy was ill. “He has a sore throat,” said one woman who claimed to be a relative but declined to give her name or the name of the journalist’s lawyer.
Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA) issued the statement condemning the court’s guilty verdict against Rithy for his reporting related to Covid-19.
“Mr. Sovann Rithy had just carried out his role as a journalist by quoting a speech from a reliable source,” Nop Vy, executive director of CamboJA, said in the statement. “Convicting the journalist under the Criminal Code is a threat meant to instill fear in other journalists, and shows that the Law on the Press is not being used as it was intended.”
CamboJA also called on the court to drop charges against other journalists, including Ros Sokhet and Sok Udom, former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, and former Cambodia Daily reporters Zsombor Peter and Aun Pheap.
CamboJA also called on the Information Ministry to restore TVFB’s media license, which was terminated shortly after Rithy’s arrest, according to an April letter issued by the ministry.
Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) President Pen Bona said that the conviction of Rithy should not be seen as a threat against other professional journalists, as Rithy is only a Facebook user.
“I do not think it affects the spirit of journalists because in Cambodia, there are many who carry out their work professionally and they won’t be harmed,” he said.
“Usually, [the government] has been more strict on stories related to Covid-19, but as journalists we should understand that it was an emergency case and the government had to take measures…to protect security and people’s lives,” he said.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn declined to comment, saying he was in a meeting.
Earlier this year, Cambodian authorities arrested a number of people on allegations that they had spread “fake news” about Covid-19. As of April 9, Human Rights Watch had documented 23 arrests related to alleged misinformation regarding Covid-19, with 10 people in pretrial detention at the time, eight of whom were former members of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.