A woman who posted a video on Facebook of herself throwing a shoe at a Cambodian People’s Party sign featuring Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin has been summonsed by prosecutors and has gone into hiding after allegedly receiving threats.
Sam Sokha, 38 years old, who has been active in criticising the ruling CPP on Facebook, posted a 13-second video of herself throwing a shoe at a roadside billboard in Preah Sihanouk province last week. Amid laughter from someone behind the camera, she’s heard saying: “This person, when will he stop destroying the nation?”
According to the summons, signed by Kampong Speu Provincial Court prosecutor Keo Sothea, Sokha has to appear for questioning before June 8. The potential charges include “insulting and inciting discrimination” under articles 502, 494, and 496 of the Criminal Code.
Sothea declined to give details yesterday. “Let the authorities do their work,” he said.
What might seem a trifling incident is the latest in a series of cases that have demonstrated the government’s increasing sensitivity to political speech on Facebook – the dominant social media platform in Cambodia. The harsh reaction in Sokha’s case, however, will likely have the unintended consequence of drawing even wider attention to the offending post, one observer noted.
Sokha, meanwhile, said yesterday that despite having no faith in the court system, she would appear as invited. She confirmed having filmed the video clip on April 1 and posting it on Tuesday. “I posted it because I am hurt because of his leadership . . . My aunt’s land was grabbed. And they arrested and jailed my brother and he even could not find an attorney,” she said without giving details on the arrest of her relative. She said that authorities on Saturday searched her room in Kampong Speu.
She said she was now in hiding because of unspecified threats by CPP supporters. “Supporters threatened that if anyone knows my place, they will offer 5 million riel [about $1,250],” she said, without delving into the specific content of the threats.
Watch the video here:
Sokha’s Facebook posts identify her as a member of the Free Trade Union, and Chea Mony, the former president of the union, said that Sokha used to work in a factory in Kampong Speu before getting fired. He said Sokha was sent to court in 2016 because she protested against the factory. He added that she was politically active.
But “just throwing shoes and posting it on Facebook, I think that is not wrong”, Mony said, adding that public officials were able to get away with insulting people, while CNRP supporters faced legal action.
But Governor Vi Samnang rejected allegations of acting in the CPP’s favour. “We don’t do this because we favour a party, but because the authority has the right to control and maintain peace and social order.”
He also insisted that the response was justified. “Throwing shoes at the photo? Do you want war to take place like in foreign countries or what?”
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, meanwhile, said no law existed for insulting or discriminating against political parties as entities and that Sokha’s action was protected by freedom of expression. “[The charge] ‘insult’ exists in the law, but for government officials, or ancestors not for parties,” he said.
When called about the matter yesterday, Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap hung up on a reporter.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, described the summons as an overreaction: “It’s beyond ridiculous that the authorities are now chasing a shoe thrower and planning to charge her with a serious criminal offense,” he wrote in an email yesterday.
“With this ill-advised persecution, the government has given this worker the gift of instant fame by ensuring everyone will watch her video while also revealing the depth of their paranoia that any act of resistance could spark a wider public uprising against them,” he said.