Global press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières has condemned last month’s rapid-fire conviction of United Nations World Food Programme employee Seng Kunnaka for criminal incitement.
“This conviction reflects the harder line being taken by the government on online free expression,” the Paris-based group said in a statement released late on Monday.
“While not commenting on the content of the article, we point out that Seng [Kunnaka] did not distribute it publicly, which is punishable under Cambodia law. He just printed it in order to read it with two colleagues,” the group said.
Seng Kunnaka was arrested on December 17 for printing out an online article and sharing it with security guards at the WFP warehouse where he was employed.
Less than 48 hours later, he was convicted of incitement under the new penal code and sentenced to six months jail.
Court and government officials, as well as Seng Kunnaka’s lawyer, have offered scant details on the content of the article. It is believed to have been posted on the news blog KI-Media, which often posts acerbic criticisms of the government.
Following Seng Kunnaka’s conviction, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told The Post that the article had referred to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Var Kimhong, the senior minister in charge of border affairs, as “traitors”.
“They accused Hun Sen ... and Var Kimhong of treason and selling land to Vietnam,” he said.
He also said Seng Kunnaka distributed the article publicly.
“One person distributes to three or four persons – what, do you think that is private?” Phay Siphan said.
Chou Sokheng, Seng Kunnaka’s defence lawyer, said last month his client would appeal. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Allegations of treason and border relations with Vietnam remain fraught political issues.
In a speech on Monday defending the January 7 holiday, which marks the Vietnamese-led invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Hun Sen said calling a government official a “traitor” was beyond the pale.
“I would like to tell you not to curse as a national traitor,” he said at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh. “If you curse, it will be a problem, if you dare to use this word you will be arrested from your homes. Don’t talk about freedom of expression on this matter.”
Some critics have said January 7 marks the day that Cambodia came under the influence of Vietnam. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party has repeatedly alleged that the Kingdom has lost land to Vietnamese border encroachment.
RSF noted that Seng Kunnaka was arrested just two days after Hun Sen lashed out at the WFP over a news report citing the agency as saying Cambodia was at risk of a food shortage.
“He should not be made to suffer because of recent friction between the World Food Programme and the Cambodian government,” RSF said.
WFP wrote a letter of apology to Hun Sen over the issue, which it has insisted is unrelated to Seng Kunnaka’s case.
WFP country director Jean-Pierre DeMargerie said Tuesday that the agency was “closely follow[ing] the legal process regarding our staff member”.
In a survey measuring press freedom in 178 countries last year, RSF ranked Cambodia 128, its worst rating yet. In 2002, RSF ranked Cambodia 71st.