A Kampong Chhnang court convicted and sentenced a radio station owner to 20 months in prison on Tuesday for reporting about a land conflict between villagers and military officials in the province.
Sok Oudom, who ran Rithysen Radio Station, was convicted on Tuesday by the Kampong Chhnang Provincial, according to a CamboJA court observer, and ordered to pay a 20 million riel, or around $5,000, fine for inciting villagers through his reportage of the land dispute.
Oudom was arrested on May 13 and charged with incitement for a Facebook livestream where he talked about villagers’ land being grabbed by a military social land concession in Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary. The dispute involved senior military official Nou Samreth, who did not present himself at the trial.
Hong Kimhak, the provincial court’s spokesperson, confirmed the 20-month sentence and the $5,000 fine.
Un Chanthol, Oudom’s defense lawyer, said that he would discuss the possibility of filing an appeal with a higher court.
“[The verdict] is the discretion of a judge, but if we can’t accept it then we can appeal to a higher court,” he said.
As he was escorted out of the courtroom, Sok Oudom said he was disappointed with the verdict and that he would file an appeal.
Meas Sophorn, a spokesperson for the Information Ministry, said he was too busy to comment.
During the trial last month, trial judge Y Thavrak said that Oudom had instead incited villagers. Three witnesses, including senior military official Nou Samreth, who were expected to present evidence against Oudom were not present in court.
According to Samreth’s questioning from May 12, and read out in court, there were around 30 journalists on May 12 who had incited villagers to occupy land in the province’s Chieb commune, where the military intended to build a shooting range.
Nut Sovanthou, Oudom’s wife, said the verdict was unfair and that there was no evidence to show that Oudom had incited the villagers. She said her husband routinely reported about land disputes in the province and felt that senior officials, like Nou Samreth, were displeased with his stories.
“I think in this case there are some powerful officials who are behind the mistreatment of him,” Sovanthou said.
In Oudom’s May 12 Facebook live stream, he reported that the land dispute began after the military took the land from villagers, who were using it for agriculture in Toek Phos district’s Chieb commune. He said that local villagers were living at the location before it was converted into the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary by the Environment Ministry.
He said that the military wanted the sanctuary land for a shooting range, with the provincial governor accusing the villagers of occupying state land.
“If they revoke that land, they should revoke all land together, including the land of the military, for which the government had secretly made a land title,” he said.
Him Khortieth, research and advocacy manager at CamboJA, said that it was unusual for the court to only convict Oudom, when there were around 10 other journalists reporting the same issue.
“I think that it is serious punishment against Sok Oudom, who is a professional journalist who dares to disseminate the truth,” Khortieth said.
Sam Chankea, a staffer with local rights group ADHOC, said Oudom was only expressing his opinion and dissemination information to the public.
“For my opinion, this is an intention to crackdown on the media to not criticize state policy,” he said.
“A conviction against [Sok Oudom] might be related to issues he raised that could impact the interests of high-ranking officials in the province,” said Chankea.