PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - On the night of Jan. 16, Kol Sat could not locate her husband even after contacting everyone she thought might know the whereabouts of Kong Mas.
The next morning, her mother-in-law called with news: Police were questioning Kong Mas after arresting him the day before.
Kol Sat, a garment worker in Phnom Penh, told VOA her husband had accepted a friend’s invitation to have coffee only to be picked up by authorities around 9:30 a.m., just hours after Kong Mas arrived in Phnom Penh from Siem Reap province, where he worked as a construction supervisor.
His arrest was related to Facebook posts, said Kol Sat, 35.
Among other things, he criticized the Cambodian government for its role in the possible suspension of Everything but Arms (EBA), the European Union’s initiative that grants Cambodia preferential access to its markets, a structure that can be removed if beneficiary countries fail to respect core human rights.
Since then, the EU has taken the first step to suspend EBA.
“I think it is just constructive criticism and he is just an ordinary citizen and he has personal rights to post,” Kol Sat said. “I think perhaps it is not wrong.”
Article 41 enshrined in the Constitution of Cambodia states that “Khmer citizens shall have the freedom to express their personal opinions, the freedom of press, of publication and of assembly.”
A series of arrests
Kong Mas, 33, was one of the leading members in Svay Rieng province of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. His arrest is the latest in a series related to Facebook posts that the Cambodian government said were intended “to insult and/or incitement,” a charge often used to imprison government critics. It carries a prison sentence of six months to two years.
The first prominent arrest occurred in August 2015 and resulted in university student Kung Raiya being charged with incitement for posting a call for a “color revolution.”
In July 2017, police arrested Rom Chamroeun for posting an image of two pistols on his Facebook page with text seemingly directed at Cambodia’s prime minister that read, “Hun Sen I will kill you. Because if you aren’t killed, Cambodia will never have peace. Me and my siblings will shoot Mr Hun Sen someday, and his wife and children.”
In February 2018, Sam Sokha was arrested after a video surfaced on Facebook that showed her throwing a shoe at a roadside billboard depicting Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin. She could be heard saying, “These are the men who are destroying our nation.” She fled to Thailand requesting political asylum and was arrested for insulting Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party when she returned to Cambodia.
All told, more than a dozen Cambodians have been arrested or detained for making political statements on Facebook, some of them after running afoul of a lese-majeste law passed in February 2018 that criminalizes criticism of the king and allows for sentences as long as five years. In some cases, however, the posters were released after writing a letter of apology to Hun Sen and pledging to stop political posting on Facebook.
‘Insulting and incitement’ charge
Sam Sokong, the lawyer for Kong Mas, said his client’s arrest was “completely politically motivated” because the evidence consists of posts from April to December 2018 criticizing the government, supporting the campaign to not vote in the 2018 election, and calling for Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader, to return to Cambodia.
On Jan. 16, just before his arrest, Kong Mas posted a 2-day-old Reuters story saying the EU had decided to take the first step in sanctioning [Cambodia] by removing the preferential treatment of its products such as garments and rice. Then he shared Sam Rainsy’s schedule of public meetings during a U.S. visit. And he posted that Hun Sen’s administration ignored problems faced by farmers such as the falling market prices for their output, according to his post viewed by VOA Khmer.
“When authorities or the government are angry, they will file complaints and 100 percent of the time, the court has to take action in accordance with the complaints, whether or not they’re based on the law,” said Sam Sokong, who has represented five people arrested for their Facebook posts.
Kong Mas has been charged with insulting and incitement.
The government has a history of silencing voices it believes have been raised in opposition.
In November 2017, the CNRP, which nearly defeated Hun Sen’s ruling party in the 2013 elections, was dissolved.
This came after a crackdown on critical media outlets including the closure of the influential English-language Cambodia Daily after the publishers received a large, overdue tax bill, and several local radio stations that broadcast factual programming in rural Cambodia, where ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) traditionally draws its support base.
In addition to suppressing traditional media that are not pro-government, the CPP has pushed to dominate the internet, which the CNRP used to its advantage during the 2013 elections by attracting many young people through its mastery of platforms such as Facebook.
?Hun Sen is no slouch on Facebook. On his page, Samdech Hun Sen, Cambodian Prime Minister, the onetime Khmer Rouge commander posts photographs of himself posing with garment workers and students, and gushes about his love for his wife. If this makes the man who became prime minister in 1985 seem more approachable to Cambodia’s young and increasingly tech-savvy population, 40 percent of whom are avid Facebook users, that’s the point.
At a groundbreaking ceremony for a flood protection and drainage improvement project in Phnom Penh on March 4, Hun Sen waved off rumors that Facebook might go dark by saying, “I am also a Facebook user, so why would I shut down Facebook?”
Instead he ordered officials to draft an new anti-cybercrime law, and Meas Po, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, said it will not affect freedom of expression. According to Meas Po, approximately 13.6 million people, or 82 percent of Cambodians, use the internet, and about 7 million use Facebook, making it the nation’s most popular social media platform.
Among those Facebook users are community activists and opposition supporters who are increasingly subject to the same pressures as their counterparts in the traditional media, according to “Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms,” a report released by the Cambodian rights group, Licadho in May 2015.
“I don’t believe the authorities do not understand what freedom of expression means, but we know it depends on their interpretation,” said Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s monitoring manager.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophana could not be reached for comment.
?Rights group’s concerns
United Nations Special Rapporteur to Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said in an email to VOA Khmer that she is following a number of cases involving people arrested and even charged in connection with online posts.
“I am reminded that freedom of expression and the controls that can be legitimately placed thereon are the same irrespective of whether the comments are made on Facebook, through other social media, or in printed media,” she said.
“I have previously expressed concern at various provisions of the criminal code being used to limit freedom of expression in Cambodia,” she added.
Am Sam Ath expressed his concern that if Hun Sen’s requested cybercrime law passes, it will be used to stifle citizens’ freedom of expression.
“We are worried that [the government] will become even more strict about citizens’ freedom [of expression],” he said. “Perhaps more will be arrested.”
“With respect to the cybercrime law,” Smith said, “I have not received information on this law. I can simply state that I hope that any law will give effect to Cambodia’s international obligations to ensure the appropriate balance between protecting national security and internet freedom.”
Kong Mas’ lawyer, Sam Sokong, said he is asking the Supreme Court to release his client on bail.
Kol Sat who visits her husband once or twice a week, said her husband has lost weight and has developed high blood pressure while jailed, adding “He should be released now.”