The ongoing imprisonment of two former RFA reporters held for three months on charges of “espionage” is “unjustified” and in violation of Cambodia’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, a consortium of journalist organizations said Tuesday, calling for their “immediate release.”
Former RFA Khmer Service reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 by police who initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and were formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code.
In December, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld an earlier ruling that denied the two men bail from pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison, and they face a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted of the charges against them.
On Tuesday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) issued a joint statement calling the charges “inappropriate” and called for their “immediate release.”
The reporters’ lengthy pretrial detention has caused their families “unacceptable” suffering, the statement said, and is “clearly related to the government’s legal harassment and official intimidation of U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA).”
RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September amid a government crackdown on the media, and the two reporters have denied the charges against them.
Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said the cases against the two reporters “clearly show that the law and the judicial system are being used to intimidate the entire press.”
“We relay the deep concern of many journalists on the ground after Cambodia’s crackdown against independent media,” he said.
“International organizations need to understand the gravity of what is happening in Phnom Penh. The denial of media freedom means the end of a 25-year democratic transition after the trauma of the Khmer Rouge genocide. This is what lies behind the pair’s arrest.”
Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior had warned prior to their arrests that any journalists still working for RFA would be treated as spies.
In the weeks leading to their arrests, authorities shuttered dozens of local radio stations broadcasting RFA and other content critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), accused RFA and English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily of failing to pay back taxes, and suggested RFA was colluding against the government.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and the courts have yet to produce any evidence implicating Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin in a crime, the joint statement said.
“The rights for freedom of expression and the press are protected under Article 41 of Cambodia’s Constitution, and the legal actions taken against Chhin and Sothearin are acts of intimidation, not due process,” it added.
A trial date has not been set for the two reporters.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.