Rights groups urge Cambodia to end assault on freedom of speech
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Rights groups urge Cambodia to end assault on freedom of speech

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement Tuesday calling on the Cambodian government to immediately cease its assault on freedom of expression in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement is endorsed by 12 international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists.

The statement highlights Cambodia’s COVID-19 response, acknowledging that they were spared from high numbers of cases in 2020, but that beginning in February 2021 there has been a large spike. However, it then goes on to recognize the way in which the government responded to this with disproportionate and unnecessary measures in violation of Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.

The government is accused of silencing critics of COVID-19 efforts after they placed a de facto ban on independent reporting in the red zones of the country, which are areas deemed high risk for COVID-19 transmission. The information ministry ordered journalists to immediately stop reporting from the red zones, warning that they would face prosecution and limited reporting to only state media or journalists invited by the government.

The statement also focuses on dozens of arrests that the Cambodian authorities have made on individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s Covid-19 response. HRW has documented the arrests of 17 people since late January 2020 for sharing information about COVID-19 in Cambodia. In March, at least six individuals were arrested for their criticism of the government’s vaccination campaign.

The organizations stress that “these measures serve to undermine, not advance, efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.” They conclude by calling on the Cambodian government to end the assault on freedom of expression and urge the Cambodian authorities to “substantially amend or repeal the new Covid-19 law and other non-human rights compliant legislation that criminalizes or unduly restrict freedom of expression and information”.