Journalist Who Quoted Hun Sen Receives Suspended Sentence, Freed

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Sovann Rithy, editor of the TVFB news site, holds up a smartphone at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters following his arrest on April 7, 2020. (Phnom Penh Municipal Police)

The jailed editor-in-chief of popular online news outlet TVFB was freed on Monday after being handed a suspended 18-month sentence.

Sovann Rithy, 31, stood for a brief trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday on incitement charges after being arrested in April for quoting Prime Minister Hun Sen on his personal Facebook page.

After a short break following the hearing, presiding judge Li Sokha sentenced Rithy to 18 months in prison for incitement to disturb social security, but backdated the sentence to his arrest and pretrial detention in April and announced the rest of his sentence suspended.

“The court sentenced you to 18 months in prison, but you will serve from the day of being arrested until the day the verdict was announced, meaning you will be free from today and the prosecutor will issue an order for your release,” Sokha told the court.

After the verdict was announced, Rithy bowed at the courtroom podium a few times, and then gave a deeper bow toward the judge.

Rithy declined to speak after the verdict, saying he has health problems so could not give any comment. His lawyer also declined to comment outside the courtroom.

Rithy and his father, Sovann Sokha, are the founders of ambulance-chasing news outlet TVFB, which began as a Facebook page and grew into a news outlet with a broadcasting license and staff. However, the operation and its web presence shut down following Rithy’s imprisonment on April 9, and the Information Ministry stripped TVFB of its license.

The incriminating Facebook post quoted a speech from Hun Sen on April 7, in which the prime minister said the government will not extend Covid-19 support payments offered to garment and tourism workers to the informal sector.

“If the motodop driver goes bankrupt, he should sell his motorbike for spending [money]. The government has no ability to help,” the post cited Hun Sen as saying.

In the speech, Hun Sen had said: “For those who have an IDPoor card, the state will intervene. But as you asked me, motorbike-taxi drivers have asked if there is any solution. [They must] sell their motorbikes first for spending and buy rice to eat, because if they all come and ask for a solution, [we are going to] die. How could the state have this much money?”

Following his arrest, Rithy was awarded a freedom of speech award from the Germany-based news outlet Deutsche Welle.

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