Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
On April 29, a new state of emergency law went into effect. The law, which the prime minister claimed was necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the government to ban or limit freedoms of travel, assembly, information distribution, and the ability to leave one’s home during a declared emergency. NGOs and UN experts condemned the law, arguing that it lacked an effective oversight mechanism and could be used to infringe on the rights of the people. As of November the government had not declared a state of emergency.
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. Since 2017, however, the government has carried out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and enacted ever-greater restrictions on free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution grants freedom of speech except where it adversely affects public security. The constitution also declares the king is “inviolable,” and a Ministry of Interior directive implementing the criminal defamation law reiterates these limits.
Election laws require civil society organizations to remain “neutral” during political campaigns and prohibit them from “insulting” political parties in the media.
The government arrested and prosecuted citizens on disinformation and incitement charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Judges also can order fines, which may lead to jail time if not paid. Police and courts interpreted “incitement” broadly; as of June authorities had made more than 17 arrests for statements posted to social media, many related to the COVID-19 pandemic. NGOs reported that police forced 11 individuals to sign agreements not to post “fake news” in exchange for dropping charges. On March 12, police in Kampot forced a 14-year-old to apologize in front of her school after a classmate posted on social media her private message claiming that three persons had died of COVID-19 in her town. A Kampot NGO recorded 27 cases of violations of freedom of speech.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government, military forces, and the ruling party continued to own or otherwise influence newspapers and broadcast media; there were few significant independent sources for news. The three largest progovernment newspapers did not criticize the government for politically motivated acts or human rights issues. In April the Ministry of Information revoked the license of radio station Rithysen after the station owner criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Election Committee (NEC) code of conduct for the 2018 election established a substantial fine for reporters who interviewed any voter near a polling station or published news that could affect political stability or cause the public to lose confidence in the election.
Violence and Harassment: Threats and violence against journalists and reporters remained common. On June 25, the government arrested Ros Sokhet for “incitement to provoke social chaos” after he criticized on Facebook the government’s pandemic response. In April the government arrested Sovann Rithy, the owner of TV FB, on the same charge, after he posted on social media an exact quote from the prime minister telling motorbike taxi and tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers to sell their vehicles if they had trouble making ends meet amid the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On October 27, the Supreme Court ruled against an appeal by former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, allowing an investigation into espionage charges against the two to continue. The two were charged in 2017 with “collecting information illegally for a foreign nation” and in 2018 with distributing pornography. If found guilty of the first charge, the two face seven to 15 years in prison. NGOs and observers argued that the case was politically motivated and pointed to the prolonged trial and confiscation of the journalists’ passports as proof of government intimidation of media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits prepublication censorship, and no formal censorship system existed. The government, however, used other means to censor media, most notably through its control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets not controlled directly by the government or the CPP. Private media admitted to practicing self-censorship, in part from fear of government reprisal. Reporters claimed that newspaper editors told them not to write on topics that would offend the government and have also reported self-censoring due to the chilling effect of recent criminal cases against journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law limits expression that infringes on public security or libels or slanders the monarch, and it prohibits publishers and editors from disseminating stories that insult or defame the king, government leaders, or public institutions. The government used libel, slander, defamation, and denunciation laws to restrict public discussion on issues it deemed sensitive or against its interests.
National Security: The government continued to cite national security concerns to justify restricting citizens’ and media’s rights to criticize government policies and officials.
From January to March, the government arrested 17 individuals who shared information about COVID-19 on social media. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan stated this information sharing was “disturbing and dangerous” and could affect national security and spread panic.