In a case that has attracted mixed attention from press freedom groups, the Preah Vihear provincial court on Sunday sent eight small-time journalists from just as many publications into pretrial detention for allegedly taking photos in a private area without permission and extorting a timber warehouse.
Kim Samleng, the court’s deputy prosecutor, on Monday confirmed that charges were being pressed against the journalists, explaining that police had arrested the group and confiscated four cars on June 4 after police received a complaint from a neighbor of the warehouse in Tbeng Meanchey district’s Preah Klaing commune. According to a media rights group, the warehouse has previously been written about in local media for reportedly handling illegal timber.
Preah Vihear provincial Police Chief Suos Sokdara did not comment and he referred the question to the provincial court.
Samleng said the provincial court has levelled two charges at the journalists but declined to provide further information to CamboJA when asked how the defendants were allegedly extorting the warehouse owners. He said there were other individuals involved in the case who are believed to have run away from the scene and were not apprehended.
Hem Sokunpisey, director of the Preah Vihear Provincial Information Department said police had told her the journalists were not from the province where the reported incident occurred but had come from other locations including Ratanakiri, Prey Veng and Phnom Penh.
The arrested journalists are: Kim Hean, 42, Vong Nimol, 41, Chea Samon, 39, Kim Hong, 40, Roeung Chhon, 40, Sam Saroeun, 49, Soeung Sophy, 42, and Chhay Leav, 51.
An officer from the Association of Freedom for Cambodian Journalists monitoring the case said the group includes leaders of small digital publications. Chhon is the publisher of Ethypol Preah Atit News while Saroeun is publisher of Sthapana News and Nimol the publisher of Phnek Reastr News.
Sophy is editor-in-chief of Khmer Cheayden News.
The association’s officer, who asked to go unnamed for fear of retribution, said he received a phone call from Chhon on June 5 after the arrests in which the publisher said: “Please help me, it is very unjust.”
Now, the officer said, Chhon’s phone appears to be turned off and he cannot be contacted.
“I just knew that all of them do not receive any money from the log warehouse yet but they were charged with extortion,” he said, adding this warehouse was covered several times by local online news outlets in articles about illegal logging.
There have been several cases over the years of journalists, or at least individuals who identify themselves as journalists, apparently extorting loggers by claiming to withhold negative coverage in exchange for payment. Generally, though not always, the subjects in these cases are suspected to have been involved in the illegal logging trade.
One June 5, the association sent an open letter to Preah Vihear Governor Prak Sovann and the chief prosecutor of the provincial court to request the release of the journalists. The arrests of the journalists happened because they didn’t understand the law or respect ethical guidelines for professional journalists, the statement said.
Tes Vibol, association president, said Monday didn’t rule out that some small-time journalists may ask for money from the subjects they cover but said his team has not yet received detailed information from the authorities in response to the letter.
“We sent the letter to relevant institutes to let those journalists out on bail,” Vibol said, adding that he wanted to coordinate with authorities on behalf of the journalists.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, told CamboJA that when the authorities arrest journalists while they are just doing their work, this threatens professional reporters while restricting freedom of the press. However, saying that, Sotheoeuth does not believe the group members arrested in Preah Vihear are truly journalists, arguing that the country’s reporters by and large respect ethical standards and would not engage in extortion.
Sothoeuth is concerned some people pose falsely as journalists to extort money from businesses that themselves fail to follow the law. Still, he continued, if these recently arrested people are genuine journalists and asked for money in exchange for not writing an article, then they committed a crime and should be treated as such under the laws used to regulate the press.
“I still urge the government to use the Press Law to solve problems committed by journalists,” said Sothoeuth.