Two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists who were detained on Tuesday evening were questioned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor yesterday, with charges of “espionage” expected to be presented today by an investigating judge, according to officials.
Oun Chhin and Yeang Socheameta were first detained for allegedly running a karaoke production studio illegally, but Phnom Penh Deputy Police Chief Sim Vuthy yesterday said the pair will be charged in court with providing “a foreign state with information which undermines national defence”. The charge carries a sentence of seven to 15 years.
As of yesterday evening Ey Rin, the court’s administrative director, said that “both suspects are under the interrogation of the prosecutor”.
RFA left Cambodia in September after the government abruptly shuttered more than a dozen radio stations broadcasting its content. Though the government has not offered evidence or filed a complaint, it has accused the broadcaster of involvement in the same purported anti-government conspiracy that saw the country’s largest opposition party, the CNRP, dissolved yesterday.
Earlier in the day, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak had said the two journalists were also being investigated for setting up an RFA broadcast studio, an allegation they deny. RFA has also denied working with the two since withdrawing.
Relatives of the journalists said they were seeking legal representation from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Adhoc but haven’t heard back.
Chhin’s brother, Chheng Heng Beoun, expressed concern the case would be swept up in the Kingdom’s ongoing political turmoil. “I worry that government authorities are attaching this case to a political issue.”
Reached last night, Huy Vannak, a Ministry of Interior official and the president of the Union of Journalists Federation of Cambodia, confirmed that a lawyer had been provided to each of the former reporters,
but evaded questions about whether espionage charges were appropriate or worrisome for the Kingdom’s press. “We’re trying to stay away from politicising the story,” he said.
Ed Legaspi, of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, said the “crackdown on journalists reflects the level of paranoia against independent reporting”.
“Set against the backdrop of the dissolution of the CNRP, it seems that the government is taking no chances by suppressing objective news and analysis as the country slides further away from democracy.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara