Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Journalists Facing Extortion Charges, Tycoon Threats for Sensitive Stories

Preah Vihear provincial court in 2020. (Supplied)
Preah Vihear provincial court in 2020. (Supplied)

A journalist investigating deforestation remains in hiding after the Preah Vihear provincial court issued a warrant for his arrest in October on charges of extortion.

And last week, online media outlet reporting on oknha Leng Navatra’s construction and land-filling activities in Kandal province has separately been threatened with legal action by the tycoon.

Both cap off a year of intimidation and attempts to suppress independent journalism, according to Chhorn Sokhunthea, media development director at Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM).

“We have seen journalists who dare to report the truth, but they can’t escape the accusations of a rich person who has power and used the court against them,” Sokunthea said.

In the past year, CCIM recorded 27 cases of harassment against journalists, including 10 arrests. In 2021, there were nearly double the number of recorded harassment against journalists.

Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn said journalists who broke the law would face legal consequences, denying the recent cases had undermined press freedom.

“I would like to confirm that journalists or media outlets are just like other professionals, if they commit any act that breaks the law, they must be held accountable before the law,” Sophorn said. 

Extortion charges against Preah Vihear journalist

Military police are still searching for freelance journalist Try Sophal after he reportedly failed to show up for his court-mandated monthly check-in at the Kampong Branak commune police station and a judge ordered a warrant for his arrest in October.

“I am now worried,” Sophal said. “It seems like suppression, they don’t want me to carry out reporting in this [Preah Vihear] province.”

In August, Sophal was granted bail under judicial supervision following pending charges of extortion. Under his bail conditions, along with the check-ins, he was required to not change his address and appear when summoned by the court.

Sophal told CamboJA, when reached by phone from hiding, that he had followed all the court’s procedures.

He said that he was surprised to see the court warrant because he never saw any summons from the court.

“I have carried out my journalistic profession, I did not commit [extortion] what I have been accused of,” Sophal said.

In December 2021, Sophal, then an employee of KND media online, went to report about excavators clearing state forest land in Siem Reap Kulen district. Later, he was sued by one of the excavator owners, Ieng Sang.

CCIM’s Sokunthea called on the relevant authorities, especially court officials, to investigate the persons who had occupied the state forest land.

“We don’t know whether the court has investigated another party [logger] like in the case of Try Sophal,” she said. “Has the court investigated the clearing of forest land, is it legal or illegal?” 

Preah Vihear deputy prosecutor Vuth Savy could not be reached for comment.

Tycoon threatens media for landfill report

Digital media company KCTV may soon become embroiled in a legal battle with tycoon Leng Navatra after he stated he planned to sue the publication.

KCTV media published an article and video clip on December 23 reportedly showing Leng Navatra Group workers pumping sand to fill in a lake to install a concrete road to access the tycoon’s development project in L’vea Em district, Kandal province. The destruction of wetlands surrounding Phnom Penh has long been criticized for worsening flooding in the capital.

The article also claimed the construction destroyed a government bridge on state public land.

Navatra’s company Galaxy Navatra sent a letter the same day demanding KCTV take down the video clip and article and claiming the media outlet had committed defamation.

“Content was published that has made serious damage to the Galaxy Navatra Group,” the statement read, noting the company would sue the publication to halt the “abuse.”

Navatra’s lawyer Suong Sophal declined to comment further.

KCTV has refused to remove the report from its Facebook page.

KCTV publisher Min Khoeun told CamboJA that the article and video were factual and KCTV had the right to publish the information. He said he had not extorted or defamed Navatra.

“I am not concerned because what I have published is based on what the villagers have requested,” Khoeun said. “My colleagues went to that site and saw the facts: we have the pictures, video clips and interviews.”

The publication would hire a lawyer if it is sued, Khoeun said.

CCIM’s Sokunthea said wielding lawsuits against professional reporters has a ripple effect of silencing other working or aspiring journalists and preventing further coverage of important issues such as environmental degradation.

“It is a threat,” she said. “For those who dare to report about forest issues, including natural resources issues.”