In Cambodia, journalism can be a crime. That is the meaning of the charges against two Cambodian journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who worked for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a private news organization that receives U.S. government funding to bring accurate news and information to people living in closed societies in Asia. The journalists are now awaiting a verdict from a Cambodian court on wholly manufactured charges of espionage and producing pornography. The charges should never have been brought and should be dropped.
RFA was forced to close its nearly 20-year-old Phnom Penh bureau on Sept. 12, 2017, after pressure and threats from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen as part of a wider crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, the news media and political opposition in advance of the July 2018 elections. Three days after the closure, according to RFA, the journalists filed one more story, which was published. Their contracts did not expire until Sept. 30. Nevertheless, the Cambodian government warned that any journalists still working for RFA would be treated as spies. In November 2017, they were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” and a charge of producing pornography was subsequently added. If convicted, they could face prison terms of seven to 15 years.
Upon arrest, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were detained for more than nine months before they were finally granted bail in August 2018. Since then, they have been under strict judicial supervision, which prohibited them from traveling abroad and required a monthly check-in with local police. On Aug. 9, their trial concluded. Both journalists have said they are innocent.
RFA has pointed out absurdity in the prosecution. The same day the journalists’ last article was published, Sept. 15, 2017, the government said RFA was still entitled to cover a government news conference. Their charge of “espionage” is nothing more than an attack on critical, independent journalism. Even more ridiculous, Cambodia issued a statement in December 2018 saying RFA had never been pressured to leave and was welcome to return. It has not.
In fact, Cambodia remains shaky ground for unfettered journalism. On July 19, two more journalists were arrested while live-streaming a local protest against a company clearing land. The reporters face charges including “incitement through journalism.” If found guilty, they could face possible prison terms under Cambodia’s criminal code.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, now presides over an intolerant, one-party state, despite years of effort by the international community to encourage democracy in Cambodia. In Congress, the House has taken a good step by unanimously passing the Cambodia Democracy Act. The legislation would freeze assets of and restrict visas to the United States for top Cambodian officials who are found to have “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.” The bill ought to be taken up and approved by the Senate, as well.