A journalist was fatally shot early yesterday morning in Kratie province while investigating illegal logging near the border with Mondulkiri province, leading police to detain four people for questioning yesterday afternoon.
The reporter, Taing Try, 48, was employed by the Khmer Journalists Democracy (KJD), an independent publishing network. In 2012, however, he faced charges in Kratie for allegedly extorting luxury wood from a man he accused of being involved in the illegal timber trade.
Though that charge was ultimately dropped, one police officer said yesterday that he had seemingly continued the practice and ultimately paid for it with his life.
Try was travelling with eight other journalists in three cars late on Saturday night when they came upon several ox carts loaded with wood and led by a timber trader identified by KJD president Sok Sovann as a man named Hieng, whom he alleged was a police officer in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima district.
Hieng allegedly shot Try while the reporter’s car was stuck in mud on the road, Sovann said.
After carrying out the shooting, he added, the attacker got back into his Lexus and drove off; however, he flipped his car and had to escape on foot after climbing out through the window.
Another journalist in the car with Try, San Sith, managed to escape unharmed, Sovann said. Others were also unscathed.
“A police officer in Sre Chhouk commune in Keo Seima district, named Hieng, who shot Try, is a timber trader,” Sovann claimed. “For a long time, only people in positions of power were in the timber trade because ordinary people did not dare to compete with them.”
However, Sovann – who said that he had intervened on Try’s behalf in the 2012 case – said yesterday that Try wasn’t well liked in the province, though not for his tenacious reporting. The journalist had a reputation for “negotiating” with the subjects of unflattering stories, Sovann said, declining to elaborate on what that entailed.
Four suspects were arrested and were being questioned at Kratie Provincial Court yesterday afternoon, according to provincial prosecutor Ty Sovinthal.
“Now we have arrested four suspects who we believe were involved in the shooting,” Sovinthal said. “Two of them committed the crime and have a gun and own a car.”
Sovinthal declined to name the suspects yesterday, but a police officer in Snuol district, who declined to be named because of the ongoing court proceedings, said that police had identified the suspect as a military police officer from Mondulkiri’s Sre Chhouk commune. The police officer said Try may have been in business with the shooter, but did not provide any evidence to support this.
“[Try] was called [by the suspect] to get money and he was shot at the scene. After the shooting, a car belonging to the shooter was left at the scene turned upside down,” he said.
Snuol district police chief, Chan Soktim, and the district military police chief, Ul Chhay, declined to comment.
“We suspect that this murder was planned a few days ago as [Try] tipped off the district prosecutor to confiscate timber [from the loggers],” he said.
Heng Phearak, provincial investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the group’s preliminary investigation had found that Try had been killed after arguing with a timber dealer.
“Based on the initial investigation, we found that he went to cover forest crimes and the timber businessman was angry with him and shot him,” he said.
The killing and abuse of journalists under murky circumstances is not unheard of in Cambodia, and rights groups yesterday moved to condemn yesterday’s shooting as well.
“Journalists reporting on sensitive environmental issues, especially the rampant illegal logging trade, are all too frequently targeted with reprisals in Cambodia,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative, who called on Try’s killers to be brought to justice.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called on the government to commit to end impunity for the perpetrators of violence against journalists like Try and Hang Serei Oudom, who was found dead in 2012 after reporting on illegal logging.
“There needs to be a serious and impartial investigation of his murder,” he said. “Journalists should not have to fear bodily harm or death for reporting the news.”