Cambodian journalists this week started a petition seeking the release of two former Radio Free Asia journalists who were arrested on accusations of “espionage” during a crackdown on the political opposition and independent media outlets.

Journalists Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were initially detained in November for allegedly setting up an unlicensed karaoke production studio, but authorities later said they were being investigated for setting up a studio for the US-funded RFA, which the pair has denied. RFA has also maintained that the journalists were no longer working for the news network, which was forced to shutter its in-country operations in September.

Sun Narin, a local journalist who helped organise the petition on, said today that journalists didn’t want the case to set a precedent for the courts.

“We still call for the drop of charges," he said. "Especially because it’s too serious and inappropriate.”

The pair has been provisionally charged with providing “a foreign state with information which undermines national defence”, which charge carries a 7- to 15-year prison sentence.

Keo Vanny, the lawyer representing the pair, said he has filed a motion for bail at the Supreme Court after the pair was denied bail by the lower courts.

The petition is addressed to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and Phnom Penh Municipal Court President Taing Sunlay.

Meanwhile, four press freedom organisations – Reporters Without Borders, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia – released a joint statement on Wednesday urging authorities to free Chhin and Sothearin.

Their continued imprisonment "is cruel, unjustified, and contravenes commitments to uphold the rights to freedom of expression as outlined in the Cambodian constitution,” the statement says.

Ed Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, said the case “has made it clear that the government is intent on clamping down on independent reporting”.