Four online news journalists and their publisherwere charged with extortion by the Kandal Provincial Court on Tuesday for allegedly demanding money in return for not publishing stories about illegal cockfighting, officials said.
They face up to five years prison and their case has been passed to an investigating judge for further questioning, said Choun Sopanha, deputy prosecutor and court spokesman, as journalist advocates called for proper investigations into the case.
“The prosecutor has accused them of extortion,” Sophana said, declining to comment further.
Five journalists from BATI TV online and a motorcycle-taxi driver were arrested on Sunday in Mok Kampoul district’s Preak Anhchanh commune, where they committed the offense of extorting money, said Lak Mengthy, chief of minor crime at the provincial police bureau.
The arrests came after receiving a complaint from the coffee shop owner, police said, identifying the suspects as BATI TV journalists Chan Rithy, Phorn Tha, Chrong Sokny, Prak Ben and publisher Sou Sreyleap, as well as driver Ouk La.
“Those journalists threatened the coffee shop owner and demanded $100 on June 19, in exchange for not livestreaming about cockfighting,” Mengthy said.
Mr. Mengthy said that the coffee shop owner used to run illegal cockfighting, but police had already taken legal measures to shutter the cockfighting arena and educated him.
Provincial information department director Chap Vanny said that he was aware of the arrests but declined to elaborate on the case.
“We do not know whether they are professional journalist or not,” he said of the journalists, declining further comment.
Article 363 and 364 of Cambodia’s Code of Criminal Procedure state that extortion should be punished by imprisonment from two to five years and fines from 4 to 10 million riels, or $1,000 to $2,500.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn said that all journalists working in Cambodia have to carry out their role in a line of law and to adhere to ethical journalism.
“If journalists are committing wrongs, and committing beyond their profession, they have to face the law for what they have done,” he said, confirming that BATI TV news was properly registered at the ministry.
Him Khortieth, research and advocacy manager at the Cambodian Journalists Alliance, or CamboJA, said that authorities and police officials should investigate thoroughly before arresting journalists.
“They should not be [immediately] arrested because journalists play an important role in reporting news for the public,” he said, calling for police to use the press law rather than criminal code to punish journalists.
Khortieth referred to a case in Preah Vihear where eight journalists were arrested and charged with extortion related to information they gathered on the illegal timber trade – but did not arrest the traders, who had paid the journalists to withhold the story.
“They [authorities] intend to restrict press freedom and they don’t want journalists to reveal offenses,” Mr. Khortieth said, calling for the ministry to intervene in the case.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said that such arrests are seen as a threat and break the spirit of journalists, calling for a proper investigation ahead of further legal action.
“I have observed that recently there are many extortion cases against journalists,” he said.
“I am worried that they are using extortion charges to silence their voices.”
On June 7, the Preah Vihear Provincial Court 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. (Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)