Dozens of journalists have signed an open letter calling for a court in Cambodia’s capital to drop its case against two former RFA reporters arrested last week and accused of “espionage,” saying the charges are having a chilling effect on the media and restricting press freedom.
Former RFA Khmer Service reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 by police who initially said they were detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio.
They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and formally charged over the weekend with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
RFA closed down its operations in Cambodia in September amid a crackdown on the media, and the two reporters—who are being held in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison—have denied the charges against them. RFA has confirmed that it no longer employs the pair.
In an open letter dated Nov. 19, 60 Cambodian journalists called on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor and investigating judge to consider dropping the case.
“We would like to express our deep concerns in the letter, signed with thumbprints, that the charge against two RFA journalists is very severe,” the journalists wrote.
“In a democracy, the press plays a significant role in disseminating the truth to citizens. Journalists also play a key role in reporting facts to the public. The charges bring fear to Cambodian journalists and put freedom under threat.”
The letter noted that Cambodia’s constitution guarantees the right of all Cambodians to express their personal opinions, and protects the freedom of the press, publication, and assembly.
Cambodian journalists “have adhered to … the press law” of 1995, the letter added, Article 5 of which stipulates that reporters have the right of access to information in government-held records, except for any information which causes harm to national security or relations with other countries.
“Therefore, we as the journalists would like to respectfully ask the court to consider dropping the charge,” it said.
Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, ahead of general elections scheduled for July 2018.
Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement urged Cambodian authorities to “immediately release [Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin] and drop any charges against them.”
CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin called for “an end to the official intimidation of all journalists in Cambodia,” adding that “Prime Minister Hun Sen's reputation as a democratic leader is at a new low” amid his crackdown on the media.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also called for the release of the journalists in a statement last week, with Asia-Pacific desk chief Daniel Bastard saying that their cases “clearly show that the law and the judicial system are being used to suppress any independent reporting and, above all, to intimidate the entire press.”
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 next year’s index.