Even after a group of 60 Cambodian journalists thumbprinted an open letter calling for the release of two former Radio Free Asia reporters accused of “espionage”, some very high-profile voices remain conspicuously silent on the matter: those of the Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) and the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC).
Despite being the two main local bodies representing journalists, the organisations had no official response when Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were detained last Tuesday, nor when they were provisionally charged over the weekend with providing “a foreign state with information which undermines national defence” – which carries a seven- to 15-year sentence.
Police initially said the two were detained for allegedly running an unlicensed karaoke production studio, but authorities later confirmed they were being investigated for allegedly setting up a studio for RFA, which the pair has denied. The United States-funded broadcaster shuttered its in-country operations in September amid a government crackdown on independent media.
Sun Narin, a journalist for Voice of America, said he was not a member of the Club for Cambodian Journalists, but had heard that its members wanted the organisation to stand up and condemn the case. But with little confidence that it would speak up, some of them took matters in their own hands by signing the open letter Sunday urging the court to drop the charges.
“The Club of Cambodian Journalists is still weak,” he said. “If it’s a political case, they can’t say anything besides just keeping mum.”
A journalist and member of the CCJ, who asked to remain anonymous and signed the open letter, said the “silence” of the organisation was not unusual, and that members were “not happy”.
“The Club of Cambodian Journalists has been slow to issue any statement to protect the rights and freedom of journalists in Cambodia,” the reporter said, referring to previous cases like the June arrests and subsequent charges against Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, as well as the arrest warrant filed for RFA’s Chun Chanboth in May. “They always make an excuse that they need to think thoroughly . . . They are afraid that the statement can impact the [political situation].”
Ly Menghour, who is also a member of the club, questioned why only the pair had been targeted for arrest while foreign news agencies Reuters, Associated Press and Radio France International file dispatches abroad without accusations of conspiracy.
Pen Bona, the president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and the editor-in-chief of the television station PNN, which is owned by tycoon and ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat, justified the lack of response by saying that both Chhin and Sothearin have said they weren’t working for RFA at the time. RFA has also said it no longer had a relationship with the pair – making them “not journalists anymore”, he said.
“For conclusion, we consider that this affair is not under the job of the Club of Cambodian Journalists,” he said, adding that it wasn’t their role to “protect” or advocate for people not currently working as journalists.
He claimed his position at PNN and as subordinate to Yong Phat, who has long ties to the Cambodian People’s Party, was unrelated to the muted stance. “The club and my position at the TV is different,” he said.
But to many, the fact that the arrests and charges were related to journalism should be enough to take action. “The charge is related to journalism work, so they [the club] have to say something,” Narin said.
In other recent cases in which journalists were targeted – including the case against the Daily’s Pheap and Peter and the arrest warrant for Chanboth – neither the CCJ nor the UJFC have extended public support.
According to Bona, the CCJ did send a representative to Ratanakkiri province when Peter and Pheap were arrested but determined the reporters had ample legal support. It reached a similar conclusion while Chanboth was awaiting trial for allegedly concealing his identity as a journalist to gain entry to Prey Sar prison, he said.
He said the group’s mission is “to promote journalism and provide training courses”, and if a journalist gets into legal trouble it will see how it can help.
Huy Vannak, president of the UJFC and a Ministry of Interior official, said the reason his organisation has been tight-lipped is because the union doesn’t “want to politicise and put more burden on the case”.
When asked if the case had already been politicised, given that the government has accused RFA of involvement in a purported opposition plot to topple the government, he said: “I can’t judge this matter, unless you have a lawyer to study the case.”
Vannak claimed his union has been working with the families of the accused since their arrests to provide a lawyer but said he could not elaborate further. Heng Beoun, who is Sothearin’s brother, said he didn’t know about the legal assistance.
Another organisation representing predominantly foreign journalists, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC), yesterday issued a statement decrying the case against the two former RFA reporters.
“The OPCC is alarmed at the continuing attacks on free press in Cambodia,” the statement reads. “By accusing them of supplying info to a foreign power with no evidence, the government is effectively criminalizing all journalism for foreign outlets or that might be read by foreign readers.”