Everything about the 30-month-old case smacks of judicial chicanery. The journalists’ lawyer, Sek Sophorn, did not know that an investigation had been concluded until he was told last week that the case was going to trial and that the first hearing was scheduled for 25 December.
The case dates back to May 2017, when the two defendants, Cambodian journalist Aun Pheap and his Canadian colleague Zsombor Peter, went to Ratanakiri to cover the campaign for the following month’s municipal elections. RSF and the two reporters discovered five months later that a complaint had been brought accusing them of “incitement to commit a felony” in connection with their reporting in Ratanakiri, although there was absolutely no evidence to support the charge.
The charge came to light just weeks after Cambodia Daily had been forced to stop publishing for good as a result of harassment by the government, which had begun a relentless crackdown on all independent media outlets. The two journalists, who opted for self-imposed exile because of the complaint, are now facing a possible sentence of up to two years in prison.
“By announcing this trial and by maintaining the absurd charges against these two journalists, the court in Ratanakiri is not only covering itself in ridicule but is also demonstrating – if any demonstration were still needed – the degree to which Cambodia’s judicial system is manipulated politically,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The two journalists were just doing their job as reporters and the decision to put them on trial now has been a bolt from the blue. It is clear that the persecution to which they are being subjected has one sole aim, to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists.”
Scheduling the initial hearing on 25 December is an additional mean trick of the kind you expect from the most authoritarian regimes, which often take advantage of the end-of-year holidays in many democratic countries to violate human rights without too much publicity.
For example, the well-known Chinese blogger Wu Gan was sentenced to eight years in prison on 26 December 2017. And it was on 25 December 2009 that a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laurate and RSF Press Freedom laureate, to 11 years in prison.
Cambodia, which seems to be following China’s grim example, is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index after falling 11 places since 2017.