Former Cambodia Daily reporter Aun Pheap is relieved that an incitement case against him and reporting colleague Zsombor Peter was withdrawn by a Ratanakkiri plaintiff this week.
The reporting pair – well known for their investigative stories on illegal logging and other environmental issues – were in the province’s Pate commune in June 2017 to report on why the constituency had been an opposition stronghold.
Ramam Yout, the then-Sam Rainsy Party commune chief, was unhappy with their line of questioning and decided to file an incitement complaint against the reporters. And a rudimentary election story quickly turned into a 30-month legal ordeal for the two reporters, both of whom have since left the country.
On Tuesday, the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court announced that Yout had withdrawn the case against Pheap and Peter. Keo Pisith, a court spokesperson, only confirmed that the charges had been dropped.
“Yes, presiding judge [Kong Tang Meng] dropped the charges against both defendants,” Pisith said. “But, I do not know the detailed reason because the court clerk just informed me that the plaintiff had withdrawn his complaint.”
Pheap, who now lives in the U.S. and is awaiting processing of his asylum application, said the dropping of charges gave him little assurance that he could return to Cambodia safely. The reporter’s family still live in the country.
“If we look deeply, this [development] does not provide us justice,” Pheap told CamboJA on Thursday.
“If the [court] wants to provide us justice they could have done it a few years ago, they don’t need to wait for us to flee and stay far from my wife and children,” he said.
Pheap’s apprehensions are not unfounded. Cambodia has seen a flurry of convictions and detentions of journalists in the last two years.
Sovann Rithy, who ran the popular TVFB, was given an 18-month suspended sentence in October for simply reporting a speech made by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Newspaper publisher Ros Sokhet was given an 18-month sentence for sensationalizing the headlines of Facebook post, and is currently in serving his sentence in Prey Sar prison.
Radio station owner Sok Oudom is awaiting a verdict in his incitement case, where he is charged with inciting villagers against the military in relation to a land dispute.
In 2017, The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down after refusing to pay an exorbitant tax bill. Weeks later, Radio Free Asia announced the shuttering of its Phnom Penh bureau owing to security concerns and tax issues. The Phnom Penh Post was sold in May 2018 to a Malaysian investor, whose public relations firm had worked for the Cambodian government.
Pheap takes his journalism seriously and said even if he were to come back he would most likely return to doing the hard-hitting journalism he did at The Cambodia Daily. But, the increase in arrests and a fast-shrinking space for freedom of expression are playing on his mind.
“For now, we cannot return because we still want to work as journalists after returning [to Cambodia],” Pheap said. “And, when we will write articles to criticize the [powerful], they will arrest and imprison us again.”
The veteran journalist is reluctant to speak about his personal situation in detail. He said he was working a part-time job, which only just paid for his living expenses.
He said the Trump administration’s immigration policies had slowed down processing of his asylum application and the dropping of charges presented a new obstacle.
“[US immigration] will ask me now that our case has been dropped, will I still be at risk if I return back to [Cambodia]?” Pheap said.
CamboJA could not reach Zsombor Peter for comment.
Sek Sophorn, the journalists’ lawyer, was delighted that the court had decided to drop the charges, saying it was a just outcome.
Sophorn, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, said the plaintiff, Ramam Yout, claimed that the case had taken too long to conclude. CamboJA could not reach Yout for comment.
“[I] stopped the case because it has taken a long time and I can’t remember the case,” Sophorn said, quoting Yout’s statement during the hearing.
Civil society groups and press freedom advocates welcomed the development, but said other journalists facing similar charges should be acquitted or have their charges dropped.
Nop Vy, executive director at the Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA), said journalists who were reporting stories and disseminating news to the public, should not be penalized for doing their jobs. He pointed to the case of media fixer Rath Rott Mony’s case, who was convicted for helping Russian broadcaster RT produce a documentary that irked the government.
Similarly, former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are awaiting a conclusion to their espionage trial, where they have been accused of providing information to a foreign entity.
“It is a good sign and we hope that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will drop all charges against them as well,” Vy said, referring to the former RFA reporters.
“I think it is the right time because their cases have been prolonged for years and it is affecting their rights and freedom.”