COURT officials in Kampong Cham province are investigating three journalists as well as the head of the province’s Rural Development Committee after they were accused of extorting money from a wood vendor they suspected of selling illegal timber, a prosecutor said Monday.
Huoth Vuthy, a provincial court prosecutor, said he interviewed the group on Monday as part of a preliminary investigation in response to a complaint from the vendor received last month. But they have not been charged with any crime at this stage, he said.
“We will continue to investigate this case,” Huoth Vuthy said. “Currently, we don’t have any evidence to punish them. We will call to the plaintiff to provide the evidence to us. If they have nothing, we will close this case.”
The investigation was prompted by Mey Kim Huon, 45, a wood vendor from Stung Trong district’s Areak Thnouth commune, who said the journalists threatened to publish stories accusing her of selling illegal wood unless she paid them US$300.
“I told them that I only had $50, but they refused,” she said. “Two days later, they published a story that ... called me an illegal wood vendor.”
But the four people accused of extortion – Chea Lyheang, a reporter with the newspaper Taprum; Tong Sophon, a reporter with Meatophuom; Thorng Kimhuoth, a reporter with Chhanteak Koun Khmer, and Chhy Hok Kimsrean, the head of Kampong Cham’s Rural Development Committee – have denied any wrongdoing.
“I think that they committed forest crimes and consider themselves to be police that hunt down criminals,” Thorng Kimhuoth said. “But I believe that the court officials are more clever than them and will provide justice for us.”
Tong Sophon said the journalists decided to investigate the vendor after receiving a tip last month that she was hiding 40 cubic metres of illegal timber on her farm. He said the tip had come from a local farmer.
Chhy Hok Kimsrean said he, too, is innocent.
“We did not ask them for anything or receive even one riel from them,” he said.
Last month, Koh Santepheap journalist Sim Samnang was ordered to serve pretrial detention after he was accused of extortion in a similar but unrelated case. The court released him on bail on Friday, an official said.