An appeals court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh will rule Dec. 30 on an appeal by two former RFA reporters to drop a reinvestigation into pornography charges against them, with a decision on a further investigation into charges of espionage still outstanding, sources said.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter, and news anchor, and a photographer and videographer for RFA's Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September.
Production of pornography for distribution, sale, or public display under Article 39 of the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which carries a maximum prison term of one year in prison and a fine of 2 million riels (U.S. $490), was later added to the charges filed against them.
A hearing on their appeal of the reinvestigation on charges of espionage will be held on Jan. 20, sources said.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service following a two-hour hearing in court on Monday, defense attorney Sam Chamroeun criticized a lower court decision on Oct. 3 to reinvestigate the two men’s case, saying the continued delays in reaching a verdict in their trial have left them stressed and unable to work.
Court investigators have already examined the charges against the two reporters for over two years, he said, adding, “The order to reinvestigate the case violates the principle of rules of evidence and procedure, as well as [my clients’] right to a speedy trial.”
Also speaking to RFA, former RFA reporter Yeang Sothearin expressed resentment and frustration with the court order, saying the case has “dragged on indefinitely for too long.”
“How can we live our lives like this? Now, I just want the appeals court to finish and clear this case up as soon as possible,” he said.
Cambodian Journalists Alliance executive director Mary Titthara meanwhile called the court-ordered reinvestigation of the case against the two reporters unnecessary, as two years of investigation have so far uncovered no evidence to support the charges made against them.
“We are still urging that the charges be dropped,” she said.
Attacks on the media
Local and international rights groups condemned the treatment of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin in the courts as part of a wider attack on the media in Cambodia and called for their release.
RFA closed its nearly 20-year-old bureau in Phnom Penh on Sept. 12, 2017 amid a crackdown by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that also saw the Supreme Court dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) a month later.
The move paved the way for the CPP to sweep the ballot in national elections last year, effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
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 Uong 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.
They were released on bail in August last year, but were placed under court supervision, which barred them from changing their addresses or traveling abroad, and required them to check in with their local police station once a month.
In a separate case, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Monday for Cambodian courts to drop what it called “fabricated incitement charges” against former Cambodia Daily journalists Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, both now living out of the country.
The case against Pheap, now an RFA contributor, and Peter was launched after the two reporters interviewed voters in a commune council election in Rattanakiri province’s Pate commune in which candidates from an opposition party were elected.
When Pheap and Peter refused officials’ demands not to interview local residents, “the officials accused them of inciting voters to support the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),” HRW said.
In a Dec. 23 statement, HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called Cambodia’s move to bring the two men’s case to trial an effort “to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists.”
“Prosecutors should drop these bogus charges and the government should end its efforts to restrict press freedom by criminalizing independent reporting,” Robertson said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.