Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Cambodian authorities should drop charges against two former RFA journalists, saying their arrest two years ago Thursday was part of a campaign to intimidate journalists.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on November 14, 2017 and charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” under Article 445 of the Criminal Code, an offense punishable by a prison term of from seven to 15 years. Additional charges were added in March 2018, alleging that the two men had illegally produced pornography.
A judge in Phnom Penh ruled last month that there was insufficient evidence against the two men but sent the case for re-investigation instead of dismissing it.
“The case against Chhin and Sothearin should have been dropped long ago, but Cambodia’s government seems intent on using baseless charges as a warning to other independent journalists,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said Wednesday.
“The never-ending case is part of the government’s campaign to silence all critical reporting in the country,” said Robertson.
The arrests came two months after RFA shut down its office in Cambodia and stopped local operations, citing the government’s harassment of its reporters.
Sothearin had been RFA’s Phnom Penh bureau office manager and a news editor, while Chhin had been a cameraman.
The men were in arbitrary pre-trial detention before being released on bail nine months after the arrests. They remain under judicial supervision and cannot leave the country.
“The persistence of the bogus case against Chhin and Sothearin is strong evidence of Cambodian government’s control of the courts,” Robertson said. “European Union member countries and other foreign governments and donors should call upon the Cambodian government to stop harassing independent journalists and allow them to operate freely.”
On Thursday, the anniversary of the arrests, RFA’s president Libby Liu also called for Sothearin and Chhin’s release.
“For two years, journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin have been forced to endure a never-ending nightmare at the hands of Cambodian authorities. Their unjust prosecution is emblematic of the struggle for press freedom and free expression in Cambodia,” said Liu.
“On the anniversary of their arrest – when Sothearin and Chhin’s ordeal began – there is an opportunity to do the right thing by dropping the unsubstantiated charges against them. Authorities can end a pointless persecution of two proud journalists and rekindle some hope for a free press in Cambodia,” she said.
The arrest of Chhin and Sothearin came after a warning from Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior that any journalists still working for RFA after its office in the capital closed would be treated as spies.
Cambodian journalists working for RFA had reported over the years on corruption, illegal logging, and forced evictions, among other stories largely ignored by pro-government media, and authorities had already closed independent radio stations carrying RFA reports, using a pretext of tax and administrative violations.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, citing a 2018 government-directed eradication of free press that included the closure of 30 radio stations and the Cambodia Daily newspaper. In the same year the Phnom Penh Post purchased by a pro-government investor.