A Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge on Saturday evening ordered that two former Radio Free Asia reporters be transferred to Prey Sar prison for pretrial detention after a prosecutor provisionally charged them with “espionage”, sparking an outcry from local journalists yesterday.
Keo Vanna, the lawyer representing ex-RFA journalists Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, said Investigating Judge Pich Vicheathor was still questioning the pair and has yet to press official charges. If the provision charge stands and the two are convicted, they could face seven to 15 years in prison.
Chhin and Sothearin – who worked under the byline Yeang Socheameta – were arrested on Tuesday, with police initially saying they detained them for allegedly running an unlicensed karaoke production studio.
The Ministry of Interior later confirmed they were being investigated for allegedly setting up a studio for RFA, which the men have denied. The US-funded radio broadcaster shuttered its in-country operations in September amid a government crackdown on independent media, and has said the two men were no longer working for it.
Vanna yesterday said his clients concluded their work with RFA sometime in September. “This is an injustice for them because they have not committed any wrongdoing,” Vanna said Saturday. “They have not committed any crimes because there is no evidence to press charges against them.”
Vanna yesterday said he still didn’t know when exactly Vicheathor will resume the questioning.
“We are waiting for a notice,” he said. He added that he still has hope his clients “will get justice from the court”.
“I will file a motion for conditional release at the end of next week or the following week,” he said.
Independent legal expert Sok Sam Ouen said that after the prosecutor makes the decision to charge someone temporarily, the investigating judge has 18 months to complete an investigation when a case involves felony charges.
Court spokesman Ly Sophana said that after reviewing evidence, Prosecutor Seng Heang had “enough grounds” to charge Chhin and Sothearin under Article 445 of the Criminal Code for providing “a foreign state with information which undermines national defence”.
Heang then forwarded the case to Vicheathor.
Yesterday, a group of Cambodian journalists, including some from The Post, signed onto an open letter expressing their “deep concerns” and urging Vicheathor and Heang to consider dropping the charges against the duo.
“In a democracy, the press plays a significant role in disseminating the truth to citizens,” the letter reads.
“The charges bring fear to Cambodian journalists and put freedom [of the press] under [threat].”
Ed Legaspi, executive director at the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Press Alliance, said the espionage charge is the “most serious aspect of this episode”.
“To call the act of reporting to foreign news outlets as espionage reflects seriously on the state of paranoia of the government,” he said.
A spokesperson for RFA said in charging two former RFA journalists with espionage, “Cambodian authorities have opened the door to more serious forms of intimidation worthy of despots and dictators”.
There hasn’t been any working relationship between RFA and Chhin and Sothearin since September 12, when RFA shut down operations in Phnom Penh, the spokesperson said.
Therefore, the charges “have absolutely no basis in reality”, and the former journalists should be “immediately released”.
“These appalling actions start yet another chapter in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authored textbook of fear, abuse and threats leveled against independent voices,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Reporters Without Borders also decried the court’s actions in a Friday statement.
“These latest cases clearly show that the law and the judicial system are being used to suppress any independent reporting and, above all, to intimidate the entire press,” Daniel Bastard, head of the Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, said in the statement.