In an escalation of an evolving struggle over press freedom in Cambodia, Radio Free Asia confirmed its reporter Chun Chanboth had returned to the US and would not attend a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today, saying it feared for his safety and the politicisation of the case.
Chanboth, who reports under a pseudonym and whose real name is Vuthy Huot, was due in court after being accused of hiding his identity to gain access to Prey Sar prison to interview an inmate considered by activists to be a political prisoner.
“It has become clear that authorities have chosen to politicise their case against him with the aim of distracting the Cambodian people during this highly contested election season,” an RFA statement said. “It has also become clear that Vuthy Huot’s safety in Cambodia cannot be guaranteed nor is there any guarantee that the rule of law would be fairly applied to him.”
Chanboth, who allegedly tried to sneak into Prey Sar with an opposition delegation in order to interview jailed political analyst Kim Sok, was in Thailand over the weekend before leaving for the US.
The Washington, DC-based broadcaster confirmed that he had been advised not to return to Cambodia and had returned to the US. It said he would work out of the Washington, DC, office as the deputy director of RFA’s Khmer service, which is hugely popular in Cambodia as a source of independent news.
Chanboth faces the charge of “false declaration”, and could face up to two years’ imprisonment.
The case, and Chanboth’s refusal now to appear before the court, marks a new phase in a struggle over press freedom ahead of a year of pivotal elections. Cambodia’s government, long accused of authoritarianism, has in recent weeks warned the media not to create “anarchy”, and even used US President Donald Trump’s criticism of the media there to justify its own thinly veiled warnings to journalists and publishers not to cross certain lines.
On Friday, the US pro-democracy NGO Freedom House identified Cambodia as a “country to watch” on media freedom, with commune elections in June and national elections next year. Earlier, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders cut Cambodia’s press freedom rating four places, to 132 out of 180. Both organisations noted the assassination of political commentator Kem Lay last year as a warning to media and critics.
RFA went on to maintain that Chanboth had not committed a crime and that, as a well-known journalist, he had not sought to conceal his identity.
“By pursuing this case against him, despite widespread opinion that his alleged actions do not merit prosecution, authorities have only underscored the poor state of free press in Cambodia,” the statement read.
Yesterday’s revelation, however, contradicts a similar statement issued by the broadcaster on Sunday that confirmed Chanboth would be back from Thailand in time for his scheduled court appearance today.
The case has raised flags about press freedoms in Cambodia and has highlighted the ethically grey areas reporters have to occasionally traverse in order to report on stories of public importance. Analysts, meanwhile, have been quick to portray the incident as part of a heavy-handed attempt to deny media access to what observers see as political prisoners ahead of elections over the next year.
Although Chanboth will be represented by local law firm BNG Legal, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that he could not be represented by a lawyer in court a luxury he maintained was given only to plaintiffs.
“So, let’s see what the court will decide. It could be that the court summons him for the second time or, if necessary, it can issue an arrest warrant depending on the situation,” Malin said.
While Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached last night following RFA’s statement, he said that if Chanboth does avoid court he would be showing his allegiances.
“If he doesn’t flee, we will appreciate him. But if he goes, then Chanboth is definitely a dog serving America,” he said. Sopheak did not spare RFA’s US leadership, accusing them of interfering with Cambodia’s legal system.
“Don’t see a small country and look down on its legal action. I request you to think again towards Cambodia,” he said.