Two former Radio Free Asia reporters arrested on Tuesday night remained in detention at Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters yesterday evening, with authorities confirming that the pair were under investigation for allegedly sending news reports to the radio broadcaster.
The duo, Oun Chhin and Yeang Socheameta, were first questioned by Meanchey district officials on Tuesday night for allegedly starting a karaoke production studio without the requisite permission, but officials yesterday confirmed that they were in fact under investigation for secretly working with RFA.
“The case is like this: We have seen evidence that they have prepared a broadcast station and everything in there belongs to Radio Free Asia,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
He added that the studio was intended to provide RFA’s US offices with information, but acknowledged that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was trying to determine what law the pair may have broken.
“It could be providing information from inside the country to abroad without permission and illegally,” he said. “The court is checking to find the crime.”
The US-funded radio broadcaster shuttered its in-country operations in September after a government crackdown on independent radio stations broadcasting their programming made it “impossible” for them to continue in the Kingdom. Without presenting evidence or levelling formal charges, the government has accused the radio outlet of involvement in what it claims is an Cambodia National Rescue Party-led “colour revolution”, the purported existence of which has precipitated a major crackdown on the opposition.
The broadcaster, however, continues to publish stories on Cambodia and broadcasts shows online from Washington, DC, by relying on “networks of trusted sources inside the country”.
Chhin and Socheameta were first questioned by Deputy Meanchey District Governor Dy Roth Khmerun, whose official report only took umbrage with the unregistered production studio at the Marady guesthouse, though the two were still kept overnight at municipal police headquarters.
Early yesterday, they were again questioned at the guesthouse, this time in the presence of Phnom Penh Prosecutor Oum Sopheak, for nearly six hours. Police officials then proceeded to pack up equipment found at the guesthouse, returning Chhin and Socheameta to police headquarters, with no official charges being filed as of press time.
“We are checking because we saw the materials and studio, which is organised to broadcast to Radio Free Asia, so it is wrong,” said Phnom Penh Deputy Police Chief Sim Vuthy. “Now we are checking and opening their emails and laptops because we did not do that yesterday.”
As the police escorted the duo from the guesthouse, both former reporters maintained their innocence. “I have not sent the news abroad. What I have done is not a mistake,” Socheameta said.
Similarly, Chhin maintained that the guesthouse room was only going to be used as a karaoke studio and to produce videos for weddings and ceremonies. Roth Khemrun’s report detailed the equipment found at the guesthouse: three desktops, one laptop, a television, two sound mixers and five microphones.
“I have not done anything yet. They accuse me of working for Radio Free Asia. I have not committed this as charged,” Chhin said.
RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said via email that the broadcaster was aware of the detentions, reiterating that they had shuttered local operations in September. “RFA is concerned that these detentions are just the latest permutation of the CPP’s misuse of power to silence independent voices and free press,” he said.
“There is no contractual nor any other relationship with RFA to provide news or other services,” he added.
The Ministry of Information has previously said that it would not issue press cards for former RFA reporters, with ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng claiming that if the broadcaster sought to “conceal” its reporters – whom he referred to as “spies” – it could warrant legal action.
Yesterday, Kimseng and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached.
Political commentator Meas Nee said the case was one of retaliation against the US-based broadcaster and that it seemed like the duo were not at fault. “If we take a look at the rights to collect information, there is nothing wrong with that, because many foreign journalists come and gather the information in Cambodia,” he said.
“The arrest is the political issue because Radio Free Asia has problem with the government, which motivates the government to trace and arrest them,” he added.
Additional Reporting by Niem Chheng and Ananth Baliga