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RSF seeks sanctions on Cambodia for stifling free speech

Hun Sen's government accused of adopting the methods of 'the worst totalitarian regimes'

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RSF seeks sanctions on Cambodia for stifling free speech

Cambodian PM Hun Sen has shrugged off the EU's threat to impose tariffs on imports of Cambodian garments. (Photo: AFP)

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An international journalists’ body has asked the European Union to beef up its sanctions against Cambodia after a third media person was arrested for "inciting chaos" in three months.

Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the Cheat Khmer (Khmer Nation) newspaper, was arrested on June 25 by the Cybercrime Bureau of Phnom Penh police for provoking "serious chaos in social security."

"Nothing is now holding back" Prime Minister Hun Sen and his "clique's headlong rush to gag dissenting voices," said Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"For this reason, we urge the EU to toughen the trade sanctions it recently imposed on the Cambodian government," Daniel Bastard, head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.

The EU is due to decide next month on whether to withdraw Cambodia's preferential trade treatment in response to the government’s crackdown on the opposition, independent media and civil society.

RSF also demanded the immediate release of Sokhet. His "detention for two posts critical of the prime minister shows that Phnom Penh is now adopting the methods of the worst totalitarian regimes," the statement said.

Sokhet uploaded two Facebook posts critical of Hun Sen on June 24. In the first instance, Sokhet questioned Hun Sen's move to name his son as his successor and head of the government. In the second, he criticized the government's lack of concrete measures for Cambodians unable to pay their debts to banks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On June 26, Sokhet was transferred from police custody to pre-trial detention, and the government hinted at revoking the license of Cheat Khmer that was renewed in April.

On June 28, charges were framed against Sokhet for "incitement to commit a felony" under articles 494 and 495 of the criminal code, which stipulates a maximum jail term of two years.

Earlier, Sovann Rithy, director of the TVFB news site, was held on a charge of incitement to cause chaos on April 7. Rithy reported a comment by Hun Sen suggesting the government could not help everyone whose business was affected by the pandemic.

Sok Oudom, owner and manager of Rithisen radio station in Kampong Chhnang, 95 kilometers north of Phnom Penh, was arrested on the same charge on May 13 after broadcasting a report on a land dispute between the residents of a village and an army official.

These arrests came after the EU announced in February that it would suspend tariff-free access on Cambodian exports in retaliation for the government's suppression of human rights including freedom of the press.

The EU could reinstate tariffs on the garment industry that employs one million Cambodians from August. It would result in a loss of about US$1.1 billion to Cambodia's annual $5.8 billion exports to the European Union.

Hun Sen has shrugged off the EU's move, but unions and trade bodies have warned that the reinstatement of tariffs could leave 80,000 workers from more than 1,000 garment factories without a job.

In April, Cambodia passed a new law authorizing a state of emergency to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It was passed by the one-party parliament despite warnings from rights groups and a United Nations experts' group that it could put restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

The Southeast Asian nation was ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index 2020.

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