Eleven people were arrested in Kampong Thom’s Prasat Balang district on Sunday for allegedly posing as journalists and NGO workers to extort money from illegal timber transporters in the area, local police said yesterday.
Chhim Chhum, Prasat Balang district police chief, said that officers cracked down after receiving reports from villagers that people claiming to work for newspapers and conservation NGOs had been routinely demanding funds from local vehicles couriering timber loads.
According to Chhum, between 50,000 and 300,000 riel (about $12.50 to $75) was paid per load, with the majority of incidents taking place in Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary.
Both publications for which the journalists claimed to work, Cambodian Watchdog and Makara Victory Newspaper, were found to be fictitious by the Kampong Thom Information Department.
“Their newspapers had no legal listing and I have never heard of them, but they created a group to act as journalists to threaten people in the province purely for their benefit,” said Man Savan, the department chief.
Chhum meanwhile reported that the identities of the three NGOs – who called themselves Fisheries Conservation, Environment, Wildlife and Forestry; Forestry Conservation and Natural Resources; and Conservation and Natural Resources – were still under investigation.
“Even if the organisations are legitimate, they have committed wrongdoing under extortion laws,” he said. “They are not authorities or police who should be resolving issues for people.”
He noted that the suspects had allegedly been threatening villagers since 2014, and had been previously reprimanded by police, but that this week’s arrests followed the first allegations of financial extortion.
According to Chhum, many of their targets were eager to evade police and so were willing to pay to prevent information being passed on to authorities. However, he noted, many of their victims were engaged in legitimate activities.
Among them was Chan Sanch, a 47-year-old villager.
“I am a small businessman who transports firewood, but then along the way, these people would appear claiming to be journalists or from NGOs, and if I don’t pay them, they will catch or stop me,” he said.
Kampong Thom police reported that the accused parties were being held for questioning and would be sent to court today.
Accounts of extortionists posing as journalists for fake or infrequently published papers are not uncommon, and this year has already seen similar incidents in Kampong Thom and Kratie provinces.