Cambodian journalists await spying verdict

Critics say espionage charges against them were politically motivated by Hun Sen's regime
Cambodian journalists await spying verdict

Former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin stand outside a court in Phnom Penh during their espionage trial. Sothearin is accompanied by his wife and two children while Chhin is looking at his phone. (Photo by Sineat Yon)

Uon Chhin is stressed out. The former reporter for Radio Free Asia (RFA) has been living a nightmare since being arrested in November 2017.

"There's always uncertainty about what will happen next," Chhin said in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. "I feel like I'm a turtle surrounded by a forest fire. I don't know how to run away from it."

On Friday, Aug. 30, a Cambodian judge is scheduled to announce a verdict in the case against Chhin and his RFA colleague Yeang Sothearin. The two journalists are accused of espionage. But the case is highly controversial, with human rights groups and media organizations saying the "politically motivated" charges should be immediately dropped. If convicted, the two men could be sent to prison for up to 15 years,

Although the trial only started last month, the case against the journalists dates back almost two years. When RFA shut down its operations in Cambodia, Chhin decided to set up a studio to produce karaoke and wedding videos. But authorities were quick to arrest both him and Sothearin. They were accused of using the studio to send out allegedly secret government information. To make things even more absurd, they were also accused of production of pornography.

The men have denied the allegations and said they had no intention of spying, making pornography or even continuing to work as reporters. "I asked the judge to please drop all the charges against me because I haven't done anything wrong," Sothearin told in front of the court.

After spending nine months in a cramped cell, the former RFA reporters were granted bail in August last year. Their release came at the same time as others deemed by supporters as political prisoners were set free, many of them after receiving a royal pardon. That was widely seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Hun Sen to create some political goodwill and improve relations with the United States and European Union.

But with the verdict still unannounced, Chhin and Sothearin are far from free. They had to hand over their passports and were put under court supervision. It has been a real burden for both of them, Sothearin said. "I asked the judge to give me back my passport," he added. "That way I could visit my father again. He lives in Kampuchea Krom [part of current Vietnam] and is very ill."

Freedom of speech under threat

During the past two years, the case has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups and press organizations. Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), said it has frightened other Cambodian journalists. "This means that all journalists have to be very careful with what they report," he said. "Otherwise they may face accusations like these men."

The trial comes at a time when democracy and freedom of speech are under threat in Cambodia. Following the arrest of party leader Kem Sokha in September 2017, Cambodia's largest opposition group, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, was dissolved by way of a court order. Around the same time, the independent Cambodia Daily newspaper had to shut down because of a controversial tax dispute. Radio Free Asia and dozens of other radio stations were forced to stop their Cambodian operations and another newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, came under pro-government ownership.

Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said that what happened to the RFA reporters constituted an "indubitable warning" and blatant attack on media freedom.

"It cannot be stressed enough that the government under Prime Minister Hun Sen has stopped at nothing to silence the press in Cambodia," Bacalla said.

She said this ranged from shutting critical newspapers by using sly means to forcing independent radio stations off the air and using various pieces of “repressive legislation” to silence critics.

Chhin and Sothearin deeply hope that the stressful saga they have been drawn into during the past 20 months will end on Friday. Chhin told that he has been unable to find peace of mind as he fears going back to prison or the verdict being further delayed.

"I have to think from day to day," he said. "When I was working with RFA, I made just enough to cover my expenses. Now I don't have a job or an income. I suffer a lot and I don't know how to deal with it."

Nop Vy, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media director, called on the court to drop the charges against the luckless duo. And he said that rather than intimidating journalists, the government should reduce corruption by promoting media freedom and transparency.

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