The two journalists, working for the Cambodia Daily, Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, have only just learned that they are facing possible two-year jail sentences on the absurd charge of “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia's criminal code.
Their “crime” was to have interviewed future voters in the northeastern province of Ratanakiri as part of their coverage of the campaign for municipal elections held on 4 June. Unbeknown to them, a Ratanakiri prosecutor filed formal changes against them on 28 August.
“Asking questions during an election campaign has absolutely nothing to do with inciting crime. This is what we call journalism,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Bringing such grave charges against two reporters for just doing their job – and furthermore for a newspaper subsequently forced to close as a result of harassment by the authorities – is an alarming sign that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is bent on crushing dissent ahead of next year’s general elections.”
The original complaint against Aun and Peter was made by the municipality of Pate’s former mayor Romam Yout, who accused them of “inciting [voters] to support the opposition party.” Their lawyer says they just asked questions, which violates neither election laws nor a set of media guidelines issued by the National Election Committee.
In the wake of the original complaint, information minister Khieu Kanharith posted a photo of Peter’s Canadian passport on Facebook and threatened him with reprisals if he failed to respect the electoral law. The post, which was later removed, is indicative of the government’s hostility towards independent journalists.
Aun and Peter “are under a lot of pressure,” said Cambodia Daily editor Jodie DeJonge, describing the situation in Cambodia as going from “bad to worse.” The newspaper’s general manager and deputy publisher are banned from leaving the country and are facing possible six-year jail sentences.
The Cambodia Daily published its last issue on 4 September, ending a 24-year history as one of the pillars of Cambodia’s fragile democracy. It was forced to close by a sudden tax department demand for payment of 6.3 million dollars in alleged back taxes.
Radio Free Asia was forced to close its Phnom Penh bureau ten days later, also as a result of government intimidation. RSF sources say the information ministry is now refusing to issue press cards to the journalists who used to work for the Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, thereby preventing them from freelancing.
Australian documentary filmmaker James Ricketson has meanwhile been detained since June, when he was arrested for filming an opposition party demonstration. Charged with espionage, he is facing a possible ten-year jail term.
Cambodia is ranked 132nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.