Nine online news journalists, including a deputy-editor-in-chief, were arrested Tuesday over accusations that they attempted to extort money from someone transporting a wood house in Stung Treng province. The journalists are now being questioned at the provincial Military Police headquarters.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Military Police, confirmed the arrest in Thala Barivat district.
“Yes, we [military police] have arrested them, and right now are proceeding with the procedure,” he said, declining to comment further.
Men Kung, Stung Treng provincial hall spokesman, said that nine journalists allegedly demanded money and detained the vehicle of someone who was transporting a wooden house.
“Military police reported that [journalists] have demanded $4000 from a villager who was carrying a wooden house,” he said, adding that they are being questioned at military police headquarters.
Military Police declined to give names of those journalists who were arrested and referred to local media. Chea Sopheak, deputy prosecutor, said that officials have not yet sent the case to the court.
AMS online, a local media outlet identified those arrested as: Ith Righty, 47, Bol Thai, 22, and Ly Thea, 41, reporters from PDA HOTNEWS; Nop Bunthim, 42, reporter at BPNEWS; Kong Sothearoeun, 43, deputy in-editor-chief from CCN Daily; Ly Vann, 36, assistant publisher of RMR-NEWS; and Sam Ratha, 31, Chres Sokhon, 41, and Oeun Sokheng, 36, who had no specific media affiliation.
Mam Chhin, a publisher from PDA HOTNEWS, called on relevant authorities to carry out a thorough investigation.
“Among them I don’t know who has threatened to extort money,” he said, adding that perhaps others in the group carried out the extortion.
“They have just come along with them [those reporters], and my staff dare not commit [extortion]” Chhin said.
“I have known my staff won’t extort money like this because I had clearly instructed them not to extort money but if they have received emotional [tip money] it doesn’t matter,” he added.
He said that he had long instructed staffers to adhere to professional journalism standards.
Chhin said he also reached out to journalists associations to help those arrested.
The publisher of BPNEWS online, who only gave the name of Socheat, said he was aware of the arrest of one staffer and was trying to help him.
“I have never seen him extorting somebody’s money,” he said.
“As a leader, we want to have good staff, not to have bad ones,” Socheat said. Adding that he is discussing with his staff how to help him following the procedure.
He noticed that at the moment there is increasing restriction on press freedom, especially those covering forestry crimes.
“As you know, that is a restriction of journalist’s freedom, that they don’t want us to disseminate their information [on forest offense]” he said.
Sao Sokha, head of National Military Police, said that military police arrest anyone who commits crime, not just journalists.
“We didn’t arrest journalists, but it was a person who has committed an offense,” he said.
“Whoever has committed an offense, not just journalists, and even I am a general if I have committed offenses against the law, I am no longer a general or RCAF but am a criminal,” Sokha said.
The Association of Journalists expressed concern that the arrest of journalists represents a possible threat to press freedom, and called on relevant authorities to thoroughly investigate.
Ith Sothoeuth, acting executive director Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), said that he did not know the details of the case, but based on information he had received, they were accused of threatening to extort money from timber transporters.
“If the case is manipulated, it is feared that it will pose a threat to other journalists, especially independent journalists who dare to report corruption or other illegal acts, such as timber smuggling,” he said.
“If the case is true, it will affect the image of other professional journalists and undermine the general public’s trust,” he said.
“I think when there is an arrest of a journalist, before the arrest, there should be a clear investigation and when it comes to punishment, it should be checked for transparency.” he said.
He added that at present, journalists are not adequately protected by the authorities, and noted that international institutions like Reporters without Borders considered that Cambodia’s press freedom has been worsening.
Him Khortieth, research and advocacy manager CamboJA, said the authorities should investigate the case before making an arrest. He said the arrests are intended to threaten other journalists against covering particularly crimes.
“According to our inquiries, the journalists were not involved in extorting money… They went only after hearing that timber was being transported, and [the driver] went to the authorities who also arrested the photographer for taking pictures,”he said.
He said that the situation of journalists and press freedom has worsened compared to previous years.
Information Ministry spokesman Meas Sophorn, said that the arrested journalists were involved in extorting money, noting that a vehicle owner who had transported wooden houses, had permission from the forestry administration. He said the ministry is reviewing the media licenses of those involved.
“I would like to say that the detaining and extorting money is not an obligation of journalists,” he said.
“Those journalists who have committed the offense above, it is illegal,” he said. “So, they have to face the law, and it is not violating or threatening, or restricting the rights of journalists.”