Two Cambodian journalists said Tuesday they were assaulted by a group of suspects smuggling luxury wood on the same day another reporter was murdered while believed to be conducting his own investigation into the illegal timber trade.
Sao Vandy, a reporter with the national Rasmei Kampuchea Daily newspaper, said he and a fellow journalist who writes for the Nationalist were beaten up in northern Preah Vihear province on Sunday, when Taing Try, a reporter for Today newspaper, was found shot dead in Kratie province east of the country.
Sao Vandy and his colleague were traveling on a road on Sunday night when they encountered a vehicle they believed to be hauling illegal timber.
When they got out of their car and took pictures of the cargo, the alleged smugglers surrounded them and began to beat them with their helmets and sticks, Sao Vandy told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They asked me why we took pictures of their vehicle and told me their bosses were officers from [the government’s] Anti-Corruption Unit, before telephoning a group of people to assault me,” he said.
“They kicked and beat me until I escaped through the jungle.”
Sao Vandy did not provide the name of the Nationalist reporter or details about what had happened to him during the assault.
He said that he had no intention of filing a complaint with police, because he was convinced that the authorities would not take action against the alleged smugglers.
Police had previously set up around 20 checkpoints along the route where he discovered the men hauling timber, he said, but “smugglers are continuing business as usual.”
Lor Chan, the Preah Vihear provincial coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that at least three reporters had been physically assaulted in the province since April over the illegal timber trade.
“ADHOC is concerned for the safety of reporters as we have observed all kinds of intimidation against them by illegal smugglers,” he said, adding that journalists had mostly reported threats that their well-being “would be compromised” if they wrote stories based on their investigations.
Meanwhile, three men arrested in connection with the murder of journalist Taing Try are awaiting formal charges after confessing to killing him early on Sunday, when he and five other reporters were believed to be investigating the transport of illegal timber in Kratie province.
Kratie deputy police chief Oum Phy told RFA Tuesday that a judge at the provincial court had returned the trio—a former soldier, a police officer and a military police officer—to police custody after undergoing questioning, where they will be held until they are officially charged and brought to trial.
Oum Phy identified them as Ben Hieng, 31, chief of Sre Chhouk commune police in Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima district, Khim Pheakdey, 27, a military police officer in the capital Phnom Penh, and the suspected gunman, La Narong, 32, a soldier in Mondulkiri.
He said that the suspects had “already confessed to killing the reporter” and that they faced preliminary charges of murder and illegal possession of a weapon.
The murder could be linked to the illegal timber business, Oum Phy said.
“The victim threatened to write a story about the illegal operation, so when the killer saw him in the middle of the night, they had an argument which led to his death.”
Taing Try and his fellow journalists, traveling in three separate cars, had observed around 20 ox carts transporting luxury wood in Snuol district’s Khsoem commune under the cover of darkness on Sunday morning and decided to return home after documenting the act.
However, the car in which Taing Try was driving became stuck in the mud after the other two had already left, according to one of the other reporters.
Taing Try was discovered dead from a single bullet to the forehead outside his vehicle later that morning and police arrested the three men—all suspected log traders—within hours of finding the victim.
His murder prompted rights groups to demand that authorities provide better protection for journalists who are covering news and the staff of nongovernmental organizations operating in the country.
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.
Threats to reporters
Illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia, and often occurs under the protection of government agencies or influential people, environmental groups have charged.
In April 2012, prominent environmentalist Chut Wutty was fatally shot in southwest Cambodia's Koh Kong province after taking two journalists to look at a logging camp there.
In September that year, another local journalist investigating illegal logging, Hang Serei Oudom, was killed in Ratanakiri province.
Reported by Hang Savyouth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.