The Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday stepped up its pressure on Radio Free Asia reporter Chun Chanboth by issuing an arrest warrant for him, hours after his lawyer submitted a written statement admitting Chanboth had joined an opposition delegation visiting Prey Sar prison, but denying that he concealed his identity to gain entry.
RFA confirmed on Monday that Chanboth, who uses a pseudonym in place of his given name Huot Vuthy, had returned to the United States on the advice of his employer for fear of his safety. Nonetheless, the court’s deputy prosecutor, Seang Sok, issued the arrest warrant, citing “intention to escape from the court” and directing law enforcement to arrest the reporter.
He also accused Chanboth of breaking his “promise to the court”, citing an alleged letter he sent informing the court that he had travelled to Thailand and would subsequently return to Cambodia for his hearing.
In a written statement handed to the court yesterday, Chanboth again denied identifying himself as a CNRP assistant – as a photo of the prison’s visitor logs purported to show – and using a fake name, and said he was recognised as a journalist by prison guards. Chanboth was trying to secure an interview with jailed analyst and commentator Kim Sok and jailed CNRP activists.
Observers have pointed to the RFA reporter’s case as part of a heavy-handed attempt to deny media access to politically sensitive prisoners.
“My decision to get in and see the real situation of the 16 CNRP prisoners was because I wanted to know the truth about their situation,” he wrote. “In the mission to find the truth for the audience, sometimes I have to find another way, such as asking to get in through CNRP.”
The warrant comes a day before World Press Freedom Day, and on the same day that Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a statement calling on journalists to follow ethical guidelines and to avoid the dissemination of false information about the country.
Future Forum head Ou Virak, who has called the case an attack on press rights and freedom of expression, said Chanboth’s action was at most an ethical infraction. “Even if he went there with CNRP officials, it is not against the law but it affects to a small extent his ethics, being a journalist,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the attack on Chanboth followed a pattern of using the courts against those Hun Sen disagrees with.
“As the RFA journalist case shows, Hun Sen is prepared to use his political power over Cambodia’s kangaroo courts to inflict pain on reporters, NGOs or opposition activists who dare to challenge his preferred narratives,” he said, via email.