Sentencing of Journalist, Rappers in Cambodia Signal Dire State of Free Expression
PEN America today said sentences for rappers Kea Sokun and Long Putheara, as well as journalist Sok Oudom indicate that Cambodia treats artists and reporters as criminals rather than professionals
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(New York, NY) — PEN America today said the prison sentence for two Cambodian rappers is an unjust and politically-motivated attempt to chill artistic expression that displeases the government. Meanwhile, the sentencing of radio journalist Sok Oudom for “incitement” is yet another indication that Cambodian officials view journalists who speak truth to power as criminals, not as professionals.
On Tuesday, the Siem Reap Provincial Court sentenced rappers Kea Sokun and Long Putheara to prison for “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest.” Both men were arrested in September after releasing a song that criticized the government’s record on managing the economy and handling a border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.
Putheara received a five-month sentence; he was released from prison Tuesday after having already served three months in pre-trial detention, with the remainder of his sentence suspended. Sokun received an 18-month sentence. His longer sentence is reportedly because he refused to express “remorse” to the court. Sokun’s sister has said that authorities pressured him to apologize for his lyrics, but that he refused to do so.
“Not only is this sentence against Kea Sokun and Long Putheara unjust, but it is inappropriate for the courts to act as an agent of the government for the censoring and punishment of political speech in art,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “Peaceful criticism is not a crime, whether the words be written, spoken, or rapped. We call upon the Cambodian authorities to release Kea Sokun, and to vacate or overturn the convictions against both men.”
Also on Tuesday, another court sentenced Sok Oudom, the owner of the community radio outlet Radio Rithysen, to 20 months in prison, along with a fine, for “incitement” after he reported on a land dispute between local villagers and a military officer. His radio’s license has also been seized. Oudom’s wife has shared that she is considering appealing the conviction but lacks the resources to do so.
“This appears to be yet another example of Cambodian officials treating journalists as enemies and criminals, rather than as indispensable members of society who play a vital role in bringing important stories to public attention,” said PEN America’s Tager. “We decry this draconian sentence, and urge Cambodian authorities to vacate or overturn this conviction, and to reinstate Rithysen Radio’s license.”
Government leaders have recently targeted both press and artistic freedom in Cambodia, with independent news outlets, civil society leaders, opposition figures, and government critics all coming under fire. In 2017, PEN America reviewed a recent crackdown against independent media outlets, concluding: “Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this crackdown is how Prime Minister Hun Sen has wielded the entire machinery of the government against critics and independent voices: from treason to taxes.”