A senior official said on Thursday that the government has not clamped down on freedom of speech despite accusations by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Cambodia Human Rights Committee (CHRC) spokesperson Chin Malin was commenting on statements by Bachelet, expressing alarm at the repression of freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said on Wednesday that many countries in the region have laws governing “fake news” and online media that raise human rights concerns and have been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate and criticism of government policy.
The Covid-19 pandemic, she said, had witnessed a further tightening of censorship in several countries, along with arrests and detention of people critical of their government’s response or simply sharing information or views about the pandemic.
“In Cambodia, the UN Human Rights Office has documented the arrest of 30 individuals, including six women and a 14-year-old girl for Covid-19-related public comments and social media posts.
“A number have been charged with spreading fake news or false information, incitement to commit a felony, and plotting against the government. Fourteen remain in detention, 10 of whom are associated with the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ,” she said.
Bachelet said arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media have been reported in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
While governments have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, she said this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression.
“This crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster a greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them,” she said.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said on Thursday that since Covid-19, 50 people had been arrested.
Of the number, 26 were held according to arrest warrants and are in custody, while 24 were allowed to return home after having been educated. One was the 14-year-old girl who was released after education, Kim Khoeun said.
“They use Covid-19 as a bridge to attack and incite [the people] to cause chaos. It is right that they have been charged with inciting a felony with the intention to implement a plot against the government.
“We arrested these 26 people not because they are members of the former opposition party, but they post fake news – information that incites social chaos.
“Some pieces of information have the nature of causing fear and insecurity,” he said.
Malin said Cambodia had not arrested those who have expressed views about Covid-19. But it detained those who had committed offences as per the law and judicial orders.
“Their activities are not an expression of speech as protected by law. They committed offences such as posting fake news, incitement to cause chaos, intimidation, and affected the rights and freedoms of others.
“This is not an expression of speech concerning Covid-19. These are offences that are subject to legal measures,” he said.
Rights group Licadho’s deputy director Am Sam Ath said on Thursday that his organisation had also monitored the problem and the figure his organisation recorded seemed no different.
“Licadho still supports freedom of speech and encourages the expression of speech. But it is just that expression of speech is constructive criticism.
“Before information is shared or posted we have to consider which information is true and false,” he said.
He said there must be freedom of expression and speech in democratic countries because the expression of criticism is for constructive improvements.
“Does an expression of speech follow the code of ethics? Don’t use rude and insulting words or words that affect the honour of others. We must judge which information is true and false before making statements,” he said.