(New York) – Cambodian authorities should drop fabricated espionage charges against former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin and immediately and unconditionally release them, Human Rights Watch said today. Their arrests six months ago on November 14, 2017, were part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on the media, civil society groups, and the political opposition that have caused many former RFA and other journalists, activists, and opposition members to flee the country.
“Ahead of July’s national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been filling Cambodia’s prisons with journalists, activists, and politicians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “In its reprisals against RFA for its critical reporting, the government has concocted absurd espionage charges against former journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who should be freed immediately.”
Since early 2017, the government pressured foreign news groups, including RFA and Voice of America (VOA), to curtail their critical reporting. On September 12, 2017, RFA decided to shut its nearly 20-year operations in Cambodia to protect its staff from possible arrest. RFA terminated all employment contracts, including those of Uon Chhin, 49, a cameraman in RFA’s Phnom Penh bureau, and Yeang Sothearin, 35, the news editor and office manager. On September 22, the Ministry of Interior said it would arrest any former RFA journalist who continued to report for RFA. On November 14, a group from various security forces arrested Chhin and Sothearin on accusations of having set up a broadcast studio with the purpose of continuing to file news reports to RFA’s headquarters in Washington. Chhin said he was operating a small karaoke video-production business out of a hotel room.
On November 18, an investigating judge ordered the men held in pre-trial detention on suspicion of having provided “information that is destructive to national defense to a foreign state” under article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. If convicted, both face prison terms of up to 15 years. No trial date has been set.
In March 2018, the prosecutor added more unfounded charges against Sothearin and Chhin, claiming without evidence that they had produced pornography under Cambodia’s Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation.
On April 19, 2018, Cambodia’s Court of Appeal again denied the men bail on the grounds that both posed a flight risk and might hamper the investigating judge’s inquiry. This was despite their having submitted their passports and ID cards to the court upon arrest and assurances from family members that they would not leave Cambodia while the case was pending.
Apparently fearful of losing national elections scheduled for July, the Hun Sen government has imposed a comprehensive crackdown, claiming without basis that opposition parties and critics are part of a foreign-funded “color revolution” seeking to overthrow the government. The government’s actions have violated the rights to due process, freedom of expression, and freedom of association under international human rights law.
On September 4, 2017, authorities forced the independent, English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper to close on the pretext of an unpaid tax bill and brought tax-related charges against its owners. Two of its former reporters still face “incitement” charges for their reporting around the Commune Council Elections in June 2017. In August, the government revoked the radio licenses for stations broadcasting programs of RFA and VOA, as well as closed the independent local radio station Voice of Democracy. Recent government actions against the English-language Phnom Penh Post, which began publishing in 1992 after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, led to its coerced sale in May to a Malaysian public relations firm with business ties to Hun Sen.
“For there to be any hope for democracy in Cambodia, a vibrant, open, and free media is required,” Adams said. “But independent journalism is now being made into a crime in Cambodia. How many more journalists will be slapped with bogus espionage, incitement, and treason charges before concerned governments impose sanctions and signal to Hun Sen that there will be consequences for his retrograde actions?”