More than three dozen journalists in Cambodia published an open letter on Thursday urging the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop all charges against two former RFA reporters who have lived under police surveillance for more than a year while awaiting a trial for “espionage.”
The 38 journalists said they affixed their names and thumbprints to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by RFA’s Khmer Service, “to express our concern over the seriousness of the charges” facing Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who were taken into custody on Nov. 14, 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” but released on bail nine months later.
“Keeping them under court supervision makes it extremely difficult for them to live and work as reporters,” the journalists said, noting that Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are barred from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and must check in with their local police station once a month.
“In democratic countries, the press has played a vital role in providing people with the truth, and that is what these former reporters have done,” the letter continues.
“We believe that the charges against them … are too harsh. The charges intimidate other reporters who are trying to do their work and will negatively impact the freedom of the press in Cambodia as well.”
RFA closed its nearly 20-year old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a growing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on the political opposition, NGOs and independent media ahead of national elections in July last year, in what was seen as a bid to silence criticism of his government. The CPP handily won the ballot, securing all 125 seats in parliament.
Cambodian journalists working for RFA had reported over the years on corruption, illegal logging, and forced evictions, among other stories largely ignored by pro-government media, and authorities had already closed independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, using a pretext of tax and administrative violations.
The arrest of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin came after a warning from Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior that any journalists still working for RFA after its office in the capital closed would be treated as spies.
Their release on bail followed condemnation from multiple local and international rights groups over their treatment during detention, and demands that they be freed.
Call for intervention
May Titthara, a reporter from the Khmer Times, said he and the other signatories of Thursday’s open letter were also calling on Hun Sen to intervene in the case because his government had recently suggested it would work to ensure press freedom in Cambodia, and the prime minister is scheduled to meet with members of the media on Friday evening.
“This shows that he is paying attention to reporters, so we hope [Hun Sen] will consider intervening with the court to dismiss the charges,” he said, adding that he will ask the prime minister directly during the meeting.
When asked on Thursday whether Hun Sen would direct court authorities to drop the case, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that “the government doesn’t have jurisdiction over the court.”
“The prime minister can’t intervene ahead of the final verdict, but he can ask [the court] to speed up the case,” he added.
On Wednesday, the lawyer representing Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin requested that the court dismiss their case, saying there is no evidence that the former reporters violated the law, and told RFA he believes the charges against them will be dropped because of the lack of proof.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 132nd out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and warned that the Southeast Asian nation is “liable to fall” in the 2018 index.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translates by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.