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Cambodia’s Bogus ‘Fake News’ Arrests

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Cambodian authorities are using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for a fresh crackdown on the Opposition and dissenters in the country.
They are carrying out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters and government critics. 
Police have arrested at least 30 people – 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) – on charges of spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the global outbreak of the pandemic.

” The Cambodian government should immediately and unconditionally drop the charges against all those accused of crimes in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association,” said  Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 
  These arrests come in the context of a renewed government crackdown on civil and political rights. Under the pretext of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is pushing through a state of emergency law that allows the government to further repress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is busy tightening his grip on power and throwing political opposition figures and critics in jail while the world is distracted by Covid-19,”  Robertson told Easternlink . “Peaceful political activity and criticizing the government are not crimes, including during a pandemic. The authorities should drop the bogus charges and release those detained.”

Human Rights Watch has documented 30 arbitrary arrests between late January and April 2020. Fourteen people remain in pretrial detention, apparently on baseless charges, including incitement, conspiracy, incitement of military personnel to disobedience, and spreading false information or “fake news.” 
Among those arrested in addition to the opposition activists was a journalist quoting a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and ordinary Cambodians who criticized the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities released two on bail, one of whom was hospitalized. Their charges remain pending.

As of April 28, Cambodia reported 122 positive Covid-19 cases, with no new cases reported for 16 days. The absence of recent cases raises concerns that either the government is not testing for the coronavirus or that medical workers fear reprisal for reporting results.

In a March 9 speech, Hun Sen threatened to arrest Long Phary, a CNRP member from Prey Veng province, based on a private phone call Long Phary made about Covid-19. Nine days later the authorities arrested Phary. Other CNRP activists arrested include Phut Thona Lorn, Khut Chroek, and Ngin Khean.

On March 20, the police arrested Hin Chhan, a former CNRP district council member in Svay Rieng province. The authorities alleged that he spread “fake news” about Covid-19 on his Facebook page and charged him with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code. During the arrest, Chhan suffered what was later diagnosed as a stroke. He was hospitalized and in a coma for several days. On April 6, the authorities released him on bail, requiring him to report every month to the police. The charges against him are pending.

On April 7, Phnom Penh police arrested an online journalist, Sovann Rithy, for allegedly “stirring chaos by quoting from a Hun Sen speech: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt [because of the pandemic], sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.” The authorities charged Rithy with “incitement to commit a felony” and ordered his detention at Phnom Penh’s Police Judiciare detention facility. The Information Ministry revoked the license for his online broadcasting site, TVFB, on grounds that Rithy had broadcast information “to generate an adverse effect on the security, public order and safety of society.”

Provisions of the new state of emergency law that raise particular human rights concerns include possible indefinite renewals of the state of emergency, the wide scope of unfettered martial powers granted to the executive without independent oversight, and unqualified restrictions on civil rights that allow for arbitrary surveillance of private communications and silencing of independent media outlets.

On April 27, the Constitutional Council unanimously approved the draft law, leaving only the promulgation by the king or the president of the senate, on the king’s behalf, as the last step to pass this law.

On April 17, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said that Cambodia’s state of emergency law “risks violating the right to privacy, silencing free speech, and criminalizing peaceful assembly.” She added that a “state of emergency should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent or disproportionately and negatively impact any other group.”

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified.

But they must have a legal basis, and be strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.

On March 16, a group of UN human rights experts said that “emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health … and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

“The state of emergency law will be a disaster for the human rights of the Cambodian people, who face having their civil and political rights stripped away,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors should demand the Cambodian government prioritize public health at a time of crisis rather than further repressing basic rights.”  

Journalists not spared

The crackdown has not spared the media.  On 8 April , Sovann Rithy, a reporter and publisher of the TVFB social media news platform, was arrestedafter publishing a direct quote from the prime minister suggesting motorbike taxis could sell their vehicles to make their livelihood during the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help”, Rithy quoted Hun Sen as saying at a Tuesday press conference. National police later argued the prime minister had been joking, but did not dispute he had said the words in question. The same line was quoted online by other Cambodian journalists who watched the press conference, at least one of whom wrote Hun Sen had twice made the statement in question. 

Daniel Bastard, head of Asia-Pacific Desk for Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told the Globe that the arrest is part of a “clearly very worrying trend”.

“We see many governments have passed some decrees or laws under the pretext of combating false information or ‘fake news’ in order to impose some very draconian legislation.”

At issue is a lack of any strict definition of what is considered false information, meaning governments are at liberty to decide what is true and what is not.

“Information they are not happy with would be deemed false information and they can very naturally censor it, even if it’s ultimately in the public interest,” Bastard said.

Sar Theth, chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, said officers arrested Rithy on a charge of violating Article 495 of the criminal code, alleging the journalist had taken the prime minister’s statement out of context to engage in “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security”. Rithy was detained and sent Wednesday to the Phnom Penh municipal court for questioning.

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