Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

TikTok users arrested and charged with spreading fake news about COVID-19 vaccines

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine during Cambodia's ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Phnom Penh, April 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine during Cambodia's ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Phnom Penh, April 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Police have arrested three more people under a recently passed law the government says is intended to maintain public order during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

These latest criminal cases follow TikTok videos from the three unrelated men criticizing the government’s COVID-19 inoculation campaign, allegedly its use of Chinese-made vaccines. The arrests come as the campaign has taken on a political aspect, with Prime Minister Hun Sen accusing exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy of urging the public to flock for vaccines despite a national shortage. The prime minister described the comments from his longtime political rival, the head of the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, as amounting to incitement.

All three of the recently arrested men have been charged under Article 11 of the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases. That sweeping legal framework was approved unanimously in the second week of March by both the National Assembly and the Senate, in which every seat is held by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

If the three men are found guilty of violating Article 11, which refers to “obstruction of the implementation of a measure”,  they could be imprisoned for anywhere from six months to 3 years. They could also face fines of $200-25,000.

The latest arrest for an Article 11 violation is 28-year-old construction worker Korng Sambath. According to San Sok Seiha, spokesman of Phnom Penh Municipal police, Sambath was arrested Monday in Meanchey district after allegedly claiming on TikTok “there were people dead after using the Chinese vaccine.”

A few days earlier, Heng Vuthy, the deputy chief of Kampong Cham provincial police, confirmed on Sunday the arrest that day of 28-year-old truck driver and TikTok user Nov Kloem. Vuthy did not provide further detail on the case.

Though he was arrested in Kampong Cham province, Kloem is now being charged with the Article 11 violation in Phnom Penh Municipal Court. In his TikTok post, Kloem had allegedly spliced together speeches from local media presenters stating those who have not been vaccinated could lose their jobs.

“Did some people feel pain that you have ignored politics, you have just gone to vote and do not care [what] whoever has done?” Nov Kloem said in the post, pointing to the struggles of farmers forced to sell their crops for the lowest prices. “The country’s economy is dead.”

“I asked all Khmer people, are you ashamed?” he added.

Kampong Cham provincial prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth said the court is now questioning Nov Kloem and has not made any decisions yet regarding his case. The court continued questioning him through Tuesday and will make a decision sometime after regarding the status of his charge.

 Meanwhile, on Saturday police in Kompong Speu province arrested 28-year-old Pann Sophy in Baset district after claims of the same violation of the COVID-19 law. Pann Sophy is now in pretrial detention.

Kompong Speu provincial police Chief Sam Samoun said the court has charged Pann Sophy with incitement and intent to disturb social security for allegedly fabricating news about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The court has charged [him] with obstruction of the implementation of a measure,” Samoun said.

Referring to the defendant, Samoun pointed to the same charge under the recent COVID-17 law as applied to the other defendants. The police chief also said Pann Sophy is being charged for incitement under articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. That incitement charge is commonly used to restrict speech in the Kingdom.

“What he said is untruthful,” Samoun said, “while the government is appealing to people to have a vaccine, he has been criticizing the inoculations.”

While local police have arrested social media naysayers, Prime Minister Hun Sen has accused exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy of attempting to derail Cambodia’s vaccination campaign by encouraging people to get vaccinated while the government is still building its national stockpile of serum.

The prime minister had previously claimed Rainsy had incited people against getting  vaccines from China by insinuating the innoculations could be harmful. But now, according to Hun Sen, Rainsy’s praise for the vaccines could serve to push too many people to inoculation centers. On Monday, Hun Sen also praised Chinese-made vaccines as safe to use.

But in audio released Monday morning of April 12, and published online with the government mouthpiece Freshnews media online, the prime minister accused Rainsy of inciting a rush on vaccination centers with his own positive messaging about the vaccines.

“This is not to improve people’s happiness,” said Hun Sen, cautioning the public not to flock to health centers for a dose of the serum. “[Sam Rainsy]’s big purpose to incite people to get vaccines, while our vaccine supply is insufficient.”

On Sunday, Rainsy had posted on his Facebook page urging the Cambodian people to take the Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have to receive Chinese’s vaccine because we have good safety conditions, there is no information to show that the vaccine [China] is dangerous,” he said. “So please end the rumor that they use that vaccine to kill [people], because China is now an honorable country that knows how to maintain its dignity.”

“I appeal to all of you to get a vaccination of Chinese vaccine,” he said, adding the vaccines had a high rate of effectiveness.

While Cambodian authorities have long applied criminal penalties for certain kinds of speech, especially that which challenges the authority of the ruling party, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes to control the flow of information.

National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told CamboJA police have implemented measures which have violated a measure of the Health Ministry.

“I am not accepting such rights of freedom of expression,” he said. “They are opponents who are speaking arbitrarily.”

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, expressed concern there will be more arrests restricting freedom of expression through the COVID-19 law.

“We saw authorities immediately implement the law while some people have not [yet] understood it,” he said.

“There is a high risk [now] with freedom of expression related to COVID-19 issues,” Senkaruna said.

He added that people don’t yet widely understand what kinds of speech posted on social media might catch the negative attention of authorities.

While Senkaruna said civil society welcomes measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he urged authorities to educate the public on safe conduct rather than use imprisonment as a tool for holding social order.

“We do not want to see any measures against [people] while they have already been burdened due to COVID-19,” Senkaruna said.

Despite the legal and political aspects of the vaccination campaign, the Health Ministry announced April 11 that Cambodia has inoculated 1 million people. That milestone was celebrated in a congratulatory Twitter post by Li Ailan, country director of the World Health Organization.

Vaccine supply should ramp up significantly in the coming months. Hun Sen said on Saturday that more than 500,000 doses of vaccine are set to arrive in Cambodia on April 17.

A further 1.5 million doses will arrive in May and, in June, the country will receive another 3 million. Through July and August, another 3 million doses should arrive in the Kingdom.