The Ratanakiri Provincial Court on Wednesday delayed a hearing into an incitement case against two former Cambodia Daily journalists, without setting a new date, because one of three judges involved in the case was overseas.
Aun Pheap, 55, and Canadian national Zsombor Peter, 41, were charged by the court for “incitement” after covering a story in the province prior to the 2017 commune elections.
Sek Sophorn, the pair’s lawyer, said one of the judges was absent for the Wednesday hearing.
“Presiding Judge Kong Tangmeng announced the delay of the hearing because one of the three judges was busy for a special mission abroad,” Sophorn said. He added that the court had yet to schedule a new date.
Sophorn said the case should be handled under the Press Law rather than under the incitement charges, which fall under the Criminal Code and carry potential prison sentences of up to two years.
“I think the court should implement this case based on the journalism law because they are journalists,” Sophorn said. “If the publishing affected anyone, they should be ask my clients to correct the article. They should not be file a complaint against them to the provincial court.”
Sophorn added that Pheap was currently seeking asylum and works at Radio Free Asia in the U.S. He said he did not know clearly the circumstances of Peter, except that he no longer lives in Cambodia.
Keo Pisoth, spokesman for the Ratanakiri Provincial Court, said he was still awaiting updated information about the case.
Den Khornny, provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, said Pheap and Peter had interviewed him in 2017 during the reporting trip that led to the prosecution.
Khornny said the provincial court should drop the charges against them in the name of press freedom.
“It is harsh and puts pressure on the freedom of journalists,” Khornny said. “This case can threaten other journalists who go down to cover information at the provinces too.”
“Their activity did not affect or damage anyone or society,” he said.
A joint statement from 37 national and international organizations and journalism associations — including CamboJA, CCHR, Adhoc and Licadho — on Sunday called for the charges against Pheap and Peter, as well as two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists facing espionage charges, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, to be dropped.
Pheap and Peter’s interviews were conducted in their capacity as journalists for The Cambodia Daily, which has since been forced to close amid a disputed multimillion-dollar tax bill.
A Human Right Watch statement issued on Monday also appealed to Cambodian authorities to drop the “fabricated” incitement charges against the two former Cambodia Daily journalists.
“The decision to take Pheap and Peter’s case to trial seems intended to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors should drop these bogus charges and the government should end its efforts to restrict press freedom by criminalizing independent reporting.”