After covering a demonstration by people protesting against their eviction from land on the outskirts of Sihanoukville on 19 July, journalists Hun Sokha and Keo Ratana were arrested by military police later the same day for alleged violence against the land’s supposed owner. Hun Sokha is the publisher of the Facebook news page CPNTV and president of the Club of Independent Journalists (CIJ), while Keo Ratana is the editor of the online TV channel TN-TV.
The CIJ’s vice-president wrote to the information ministry the next day insisting on their honesty, reporting that they had come across the protest by chance, and denying that they had committed any act of violence.
After holding the two journalists for 72 hours, prosecutor Lim Bunheng nonetheless charged them with “incitement to commit felony” and “infringement of private property” under articles 29, 495 and 497 of the criminal code and article 253 of the land law, for which they are now facing up to two years in prison.
“We call on the Sihanoukville prosecutor’s office to free the two journalists at once and, in the absence of any new evidence, to drop the charges against them,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “This latest of countless press freedom violations by the Cambodian authorities serves as a reminder of how dangerous it has become to operate as an independent journalist in Cambodia.”
No hard evidence
The two reporters were arrested exactly a week before former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are due to go on trial in Phnom Penh on a trumped-up charge of “supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence,” on which they spent nine months in pre-trial detention after their arrests in November 2017. No serious evidence in support of the charge has yet to be produced.
Radio Free Asia vice-president Rohit Mahajan told RSF: “Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin face unsubstantiated charges, which never should have been brought forward in the first place. The Phnom Penh municipal court can rectify this unnecessary and troubling situation by dismissing the case and all charges against them without delay.”
In a series of videos filmed by RSF after their release, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin described the appalling conditions in which they were held in Prey Sar prison and their precarious existence with their families since their release.
Cambodia is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, one place lower than in 2018.