Cambodian reporter facing five years in prison for comment about vaccines

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of a Cambodian journalist who
was arrested a week ago for no other reason than his criticism of the government’s handling of
the Covid-19 pandemic. His arrest is a reflection of the Cambodian government’s use of the
pandemic to silence dissent, RSF says.

Kouv Piseth, a journalist also known as Kao Piseth, is facing a possible combined sentence of five years in prison following his arrest on 14 July in the northwestern city of Battambang, where he is the Siem Reap Tannhektar news website’s correspondent.

He was placed in pre-trial detention the next day on charges of “incitement,” under article 495 of the Criminal Code, which carries a possible two-year sentence, and “obstructing an enforcement measure” under article 11 of the controversial Covid-19 law adopted in March, which is punishable by six months to two years in prison.

Kouv Piseth’s sole crime was to have voiced reserves on Facebook on 27 June about the Cambodian government’s decision to use China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines. He has not yet been allowed to see a lawyer although the judicial investigation is already under way.

“Kouv Piseth’s totally arbitrary detention is yet another example of the relentless level of repression facing journalists who dare to express criticism of the Cambodian government,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “He is the latest victim of a system of censorship that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s clan has established on the pretext of combatting fake news about the pandemic. We call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Legislative arsenal

The full name of the controversial law adopted in March is the “Law on Preventive Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 and other Severe and Dangerous Contagious Diseases.” It is the second legislative measure to have reinforced the government’s arsenal against independent media on the pretext of combatting the pandemic. RSF already sounded the alarm last year when the government adopted a “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” which allowed it to institutionalise censorship in all the media.

According to the information gathered by RSF, at least two journalists have been jailed for trying to inform their fellow citizens about the pandemic. TVFB news website editor Sovann Rithy was sentenced to 18 months in prison following his arrest in April 2020 for a Facebook post in which he quoted an imprudent comment by Hun Sen about the pandemic’s potential effects.

Ros Sokhet, the publisher of the Cheat Khmer (“Khmer Nation”) newspaper, was also given an 18-month prison sentence last November on a charge of “inciting chaos” in an article questioning the lockdown’s potential impact on the Cambodian public.

According to RSF’s records, Angkor Today editor Shen Kaidong, a journalist with Chinese citizenship, was deported in February after reporting that vaccines donated by China were being sold privately in Cambodia.

Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Published on
Updated on 21.07.2021