Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Journalists covering mega airport project face threat and harassment

Villagers gather to hold a press conference about their land dispute over the newly planned airport in Kandal Stung district on September 4, 2021. Photo Supplied
Villagers gather to hold a press conference about their land dispute over the newly planned airport in Kandal Stung district on September 4, 2021. Photo Supplied

A reporter for Voice of Democracy said he was harassed by authorities on Saturday while covering a land dispute between a new airport project and affected villagers in Kandal Stung district.

In a statement issued on Monday, the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association said a second journalist was warned by villagers to stay away because police were threatening to arrest him.

Pok Kheuy, who is an intern at VOD, told CamboJA that he went to cover a press conference held by residents involved in a land dispute over the new Phnom Penh Airport in Kandal Stung district, Kandal province, on Saturday.

“When I interviewed the people, authorities dressed in civilian clothes took pictures of me and my motorbike,” he said. “After I finished my interviews, I drove my motorbike back to Phnom Penh and about 5 minutes later, I noticed that two people followed behind me.”

Kheuy said as he drove, five uniformed police in the street tried pulling him over but he continued driving.

“They still followed and said they were police and asked me to stop and talk to them, but I didn’t stop, and when I refused to stop, they shouted at me calling me ‘thief’,” he said.

Kheuy said he was frightened for his safety and considered it a threat against the freedom of press.

“I would like to express the sorrow that authorities are abusing the existing law on the press that ensures the safety for journalists and that the journalists have the right to report and cover news anywhere that they are not banned from,” he said. “But the authorities instead continue to restrict, and I think it is a bad thing and is persecuting journalists’ jobs.”

Kandal Stung district governor, Ouch Sao Voeun, said he did not know of the case. However, he said authorities in his area never ban journalists from covering news.

“I don’t know about this but if they are just covering news, nobody banned them, they can cover the news wherever they are allowed,” he said. 

Kandal Provincial police chief, Chhoeun Sochet hung up the phone when a CamboJA reporter asked about the incident.

Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said he did not know about the issue and needed to check with the provincial information department first.

However, he said, in general, journalists are not allowed to enter places where the authorities are in operation.

“Those who have no obligation [to be there] including the journalists are not allowed to enter the place because it may cause an obstacle and obstruct the authority’s operation and also cause danger for authorities as well,” he said. “And authorities have the right not to allow journalists to enter.”

In July, the Ministry of Information gave local authorities the green light to take legal action against journalists that they deem to be unprofessional or spreading false information that obstructs law enforcement.

The ministry made its decision after Kandal provincial authorities wrote to the ministry in June asking it to take legal action against a number of journalists who live streamed a protest against the new airport development.

Luos Seng, the owner of online news station LSN News TV and one of the journalists targeted by provincial authorities, had been warned by authorities after live streaming the protest.

He told CamboJA on Monday that he did not cover the press conference on Saturday because villagers called him and told him not to come or he would be arrested.

A villager told CamboJA that the authorities had been deployed along the streets outside of the press conference. He said authorities chased after Kheuy while about 10 villagers also followed behind to help him in case he was arrested by authorities.

CamboJA Executive Director, Nop Vy said in a statement on Monday that the act represented a serious threat against a journalist’s rights.

 “Intimidation of journalists and threats through various forms seriously affects press freedom, the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia, and both journalists’ and the public’s right to information.”

CamboJA has recorded 38 cases of harassment against 56 journalists since the start of the year.

Claiming compensation offers have been too low, for three years now hundreds of families have been locked in disputes over the $1.5 billion airport project developed by Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se.

On September 1, the company cut off village roads, making it difficult for residents to access farmland. The Kandal provincial administration issued a statement on September 3, stating that road closures and road blocks are to drain water from the runway construction site.

However, villager Tuon Vannak, who owns 0.40 hectare of land directly affected by the runway project said: “We feel that the authorities have cut off roads to encroach on people’s land because people will not be able to access their land.”

Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association calls on authorities with clear measures against officials who harass and obstruct the work of journalists.