Fear spreads that courts are being used to silence reporting on illegal logging
SIEM REAP PROVINCE
A SPATE of complaints that accuse journalists of attempting to extort money from wood vendors has sparked a debate about whether courts are being used to silence reporting on illegal logging, the subject of a public crackdown ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Monday, officials from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Koh Santepheap reporter Sim Samnang, who has been held in Siem Reap provincial court since April after a warehouse owner accused him of attempted extortion. The owner of the warehouse said in a complaint that Sim Samnang threatened to expose his operation to authorities unless he was paid a bribe.
Christophe Peschoux, the country representative of the UN commission, declined to comment on the specifics of the visit Monday, saying representatives from his office have not yet returned to Phnom Penh. He said, though, that his office was “looking into several cases of disinformation and defamation” against journalists.
The complaint against Sim Samnang is similar to several others that have been filed since April, when attention to the government’s campaign against illegal logging climaxed with the April 6 removal of Forestry Administration director Ty Sokun.
Later that month, three journalists in Kampong Cham province were accused of extorting money from wood-vendor Mey Kim Huon, who said they threatened to publish stories alleging that she was selling illegal wood unless she paid them US$300.
The allegations against all three – Chea Lyheang, Tong Sophon and Thorng Kimhuoth – are still being investigated, Chea Lyheang said Monday.
Khorn Bora, a reporter for the Ponleu Thmey newspaper, was arrested on April 23 on fraud charges after he was accused of extorting US$300 from the owner of a timber warehouse in Siem Reap. He remains in pretrial detention at the provincial court.
Observers are split on whether the complaints reflect an attempt by wood vendors to intimidate reporters – thereby discouraging them from covering a sensitive issue that merits investigation – or the reporters are guilty of attempting to exploit the government’s crackdown for easy money.
Sam Rithy Duong Hak, a member and former vice president of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), said that although his organisation would support journalists’ attempts to report on illegal logging, he suspects that some are guilty of extortion.
“We do not support anyone who does not comply with the journalist code of ethics,” he said.
“We need a professional press with no more extortion, illegal acts [or] people who harm other people for money. They have to change their behaviour.”
But Ou Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said he believed there was a direct link between the government’s logging crackdown and the complaints, which he said amounted to intimidation.
“It says a lot about the current system that they go after the messenger but they do not go after the company in the first place,” he said.
He went on to say that illegal logging in Siem Reap province and elsewhere is backed by high-ranking officials – a problem Hun Sen himself has acknowledged in past remarks – and questioned why the warehouses at the centre of the extortion complaints had not been investigated by prosecutors.
Siem Reap prosecutor Ty Soveinthal countered that investigations were taking place, even if he wasn’t personally involved in them.
“I am not a beggar: Why do I need to check all the warehouses?” he said. “I have other skilled officers to go check them. If they find out the warehouses are unlicenced they can file a complaint to me.”
But like Ou Virak, Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said he was also concerned that, when it comes to illegal logging investigations, the trail seems to come up cold once a journalist is arrested.
“Journalists are arrested for extorting money, and the story stops,” he said. “There is no more investigation into [the warehouses]. There is a bad habit of Cambodian officials in Siem Reap, of officials or businesspersons to arrest journalists.”
“They are very vulnerable,” he said. “They are paid for the stories they write, about $5. When they try to cover the story, they can be offered a bribe which is sometimes $50.”
For his part, Sim Samnang denied the charge against him on Monday, describing it as unfounded. He added that he had told UNOHCHR officials that he was concerned that his arrest would stifle reporting on illegal logging.
“I do not know what the UN officials wanted from me or how they will help me,” he said. “but I told them the situation for journalists is very bad.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA