Updated: May 26, 2021 06:43 AM GMT
Cambodian military personnel conduct security checks amid the Covid-19 lockdown in capital city Phnom Penh. (Photo: Luke Hunt/UCA News)
A group of 12 non-governmental organizations have accused the Cambodian government of silencing public criticism of its Covid-19 program and harsh lockdown measures amid a communal outbreak which has claimed at least 183 lives.
They said authorities had placed a “de facto ban” on independent reporting in Phnom Penh’s red zones — areas deemed to be high risk for Covid-19 transmission — and arrested dozens of individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s response.
“These actions are consistent with the government’s systematic and relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and information spanning far beyond the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This latest surge contributes to the government’s broader efforts to silence all critical voices in Cambodia,” they said.
Cambodia has eliminated red zones and lifted a nighttime curfew and a ban on alcohol sales which were introduced to stem the latest outbreak, while its vaccination program has been widely praised and ranks second among the 10 ASEAN members with 2.7 million people fully inoculated.
To date, Cambodia has confirmed 26,329 cases of Covid-19 with 19,022 recoveries.
The 12 NGOs issuing the statement included Amnesty International, FORUM-ASIA, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and Reporters Without Borders.
The Cambodian authorities have arrested dozens of individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s Covid-19 response
The statement, issued by Josef Benedict from CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, said the Information Ministry had warned journalists not to disseminate information that could “provoke turmoil in society” and had threatened legal action.
It said the warning followed viral livestreamed footage from multiple Facebook news outlets of long queues of Covid-19 patients outside government treatment centers.
“The Cambodian authorities have arrested dozens of individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s Covid-19 response, including at least six individuals for their criticism of the government’s vaccination campaign,” it said.
That included a Chinese journalist, Shen Kaidong, who was deported for publishing a story deemed “fake news” in which Chinese nationals reported receiving a text offering the Sinopharm vaccine for a service fee.
It also cited the prosecution of three individuals — Korng Sambath, Nov Kloem and Pann Sophy — for posting TikTok videos criticizing the use of Chinese-made vaccines under the new “overly broad and vague” Covid-19 law introduced to help contain the disease.
Last month Cambodian leader Hun Sen declared he accepts being labeled “a dictator” as he laid down a series of harsh measures to curb the pandemic.
“I accept being called a dictator, but I will also be admired for protecting my people's lives,” the prime minister said in a televised address to the nation. “People who break Covid-19 measures must be sentenced.”
The group of 12 said there was a legitimate need to counter the spread of misinformation online to protect public health during a pandemic.
But they added: “… this objective must be provided by a clear and accessible law and pursued using the least intrusive means, rather than unnecessary and disproportionate measures like unwarranted arrests, detentions and criminal prosecutions.”