The Phnom Penh police arrested them on 14 November 2017, two months after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government closed down Radio Free Asia’s local bureau, putting them out of work.
The government closed the bureau as part of its war on independent media outlets in the run-up to the July 2018 general election. It wanted to send a clear message to Cambodia’s journalists, to show what failing to toe the official line could cost. Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin ended up spending a total of 272 days in prison.
“These two journalists are the collateral victims of the ruthless crackdown orchestrated by Hun Sen’s clique in order to silence all criticism,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The interminable days they spent in prison, far from their families and in appalling conditions, served but one goal – to intimidate their fellow journalists. The government must now drop the charges still pending against them, in order to bring this persecution to an end.”
Speaking on camera to RSF, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin describe the “hell on earth” of their nine months Prey Sar prison.
Known as S24 under the Khmer Rouge regime, this prison is notorious for its atrocious conditions, which include extreme overcrowding (with 30 detainees crammed into a cell measuring three by four metres), unbearable heat and a complete lack of hygiene, resulting in chronic skin ailments.
This apocalyptic portrayal has been confirmed in the account recently provided to Cambodia Daily by James Ricketson, an Australian documentary filmmaker who spent 15 months in the same prison on a spurious spying charge before being pardoned in September.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were released on bail on 21 August but they are still facing the possibility of 15-year jail sentences on the spying charges that were trumped up after their arrests. In effect, they have been reduced to silence. If either were to publish the least story or report to make the least comment that displeased the authorities, it could be used to jail them again.
Cambodia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, ten places lower than in 2017.