Authorities in northeastern Cambodia’s Kratie province have arrested two local journalists for allegedly attempting to extort money from villagers in exchange for not reporting suspected illegal logging activities, a district police chief said Tuesday.
But publishers of the National and Khmer Influence newspapers where reporters Nget Chandary and Nhek Peisei work, respectively, claim they were framed by police who they said cooperated with the villagers to harvest illegal wood.
They wanted the reporters’ arresting officers to be brought to justice.
The case comes a week after a reporter was shot dead in Kratie while believed to be investigating illegal logging, although police had said he may have been trying to solicit bribes from local villagers he suspected of running the scheme.
Prek Prasob district police chief Men Bunthoeun told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that Nget Chandary and Nhek Peisei were arrested the previous evening following complaints from local residents who said that the two had been taking pictures in their village in Chroy Banteay commune.
Men Bunthoeun said the two reporters had demanded 400,000 riel (U.S. $98) from the villagers in exchange for not reporting that they were storing illegal timber, but he denied that the villagers were breaking any laws.
“The villagers were simply storing [legal] wood for construction on their homes,” he said.
The two reporters were interrogated by police, who recommended that they be charged with attempted extortion, and sent to the provincial court Tuesday for a hearing to determine the formal charges against them, he added.
Men Bunthoeun told RFA that “many local reporters extort money from villagers” in the area, but added that no arrests had previously been made because police had never received a complaint. He did not provide details of previous extortion cases or what reporters had demanded bribes for.
The Cambodia Daily quoted deputy provincial police chief Oum Phy as saying that Nget Chandary and Nhek Peisei had “violated the law by extorting money from people and betraying their journalistic professionalism,” adding that the reporters had initially wanted U.S. $200 from villagers, but eventually agreed to halve their demand.
“People here are always threatened by reporters … when they have wood stockpiled at their house and always pay, as they fear it will be confiscated by the Forestry Administration,” he said.
Khmer Influence publisher Sar Socheat told RFA that the police had made up a “false allegation” to arrest Nhek Peisei and accused the district police chief and the villagers of working together to smuggle illegal wood.
“What can we do against corrupt police officers?” he asked, suggesting that the authorities were taking bribes from the villagers as protection money while they smuggle wood.
“Officers who accept bribes should also be brought to justice on corruption charges—please don’t put the blame on the reporter. We will find out the truth.”
However, Sar Socheat did acknowledge that some reporters in Cambodia accept bribes not to publish stories as a way of supplementing their meager incomes.
National publisher Mar Narin alleged that police officers had tried to cover up the villagers’ smuggling operation, noting that authorities had not found any money on the reporters when they were arrested.
He also accused the police of demanding a bribe from Nget Chandary during his arrest to let him go.
“The police asked my reporter to pay them U.S. $1,300 in exchange for his freedom,” he said.
Both publishers said they plan to file complaints to Cambodia’s official Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) and the Ministry of Information to investigate their reporters’ cases.
The arrest of the two journalists follows the Oct. 12 killing of reporter Taing Try, who was shot dead after his car became stuck on a road while he and other journalists investigated the smuggling of luxury wood in Kratie.
Two policemen and a former soldier confessed to killing him and face between 10 to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Police said Taing Try may have been killed in retaliation for demanding bribes from smugglers in the region in exchange for keeping quiet about their activities.
Taing Try faced charges in 2012 for allegedly extorting luxury wood from a man he accused of being involved in the illegal timber trade, though the charges were later dropped, local media reported.
Two Cambodian journalists said last week that they were assaulted by a group of suspects smuggling luxury wood in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, and who claimed to have ties to officials in the ACU, on the same day Taing Try was killed.
Illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia, and often occurs under the protection of government agencies or influential people, rights groups have charged.
Reported by Sout Sok Prathna for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.