Committee to Protect Journalists Demands Jailed Reporters Across Asia Be Freed

Sovann Rithy, CEO of TVFB media, is arrested on April 7, 2020. Photo: Phnom Penh municipal police.

An international non-profit committed to the protection of press freedoms has called upon the governments of Asia to release imprisoned journalists due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

PHNOM PENH--The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) along with 74 undersigned media, press freedom and human rights organizations on April 27 urged Asian heads of state, including Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, to release all jailed journalists in the wake of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The letter was also addressed to President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and President of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong.

According to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census conducted on December 1, 2019, there were at least 63 journalists in prisons in Asia, including 48 in China, 12 in Vietnam, two in India, and one in Myanmar. 

The letter urged Hun Sen to release jailed journalists to protect the vital service that a free press offers – it also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic makes a free flow of information potentially life-saving.

“Journalism must not carry a death sentence,” they said. 

However, at least five more journalists have been arrested since December 2019, including Sovann Rithy in Cambodia, Chen Jiaping in China, Gautam Navlakha in India, Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in Pakistan and Frenchiemae Cumpio in the Philippines.

Late on the night of April 7, 2020, Cambodian authorities arrested Sovann Rithy, the chief executive officer of the digital media network TVFB, over a Facebook post in which Rithy accurately quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

TVFB’s media license was swiftly revoked for quoting from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s speech where he claimed moto-taxi drivers could sell their motorbikes to buy food if they face bankruptcy. 

Cambodian authorities have since claimed Hun Sen was only joking and on April 9 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the detention of Rithy at the Police Judiciary prison for, according to the detention letter, “inciting to commit crimes.” 

On the same day, the Committee to Protect Journalists called upon the Cambodian authorities to immediately release journalist Sovann Rithy, drop all charges against him, and let his news outlet publish freely.

Two journalists with Radio Free Asia's Khmer language service have been arrested, charged with espionage and then with peddling pornography which has resulted in a drawn out trial. Their appeal was rejected by a Phnom Penh court on Dec. 31, 2019. 

Also in 2019, the fixer and translator who helped produce the investigative documentary My Mother Sold Me with Russia Today was sentenced to two years in jail for spreading fake news. 

Prior to this, in 2017, Zsombor Peter and Aun Pheap – two reporters from the now-defunct Cambodia Daily – were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” after reporting on commune elections in Rattanakiri province to establish why one commune seemed alone in supporting the former opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party. Both Pheap and Peter have since left Cambodia, but still face up to two years in prison if convicted.

As of March 31, at least five journalists have been released, four in China and one in Vietnam, according to CPJ research. 

“For journalists jailed in countries affected by the virus, freedom is now a matter of life and death,” wrote the CPJ. The letter added that, "imprisoned journalists have no control over their surroundings, cannot choose to isolate and are often denied necessary medical care.”

 


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