The first issue of The Cambodia Daily is seen at the newspaper's office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the day of the newspaper's forced shut down, September 3, 2017.  © 2017 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately drop fabricated incitement charges against two former Cambodia Daily journalists, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 13, the Rattanakiri provincial court set December 25 as the first trial date for Aun Pheap, 55, and Zsombor Peter, 41. Neither currently live in Cambodia. Their lawyer said he had never received notification from the court that the investigation had been completed and a trial was imminent.

“The decision to take Pheap and Peter’s case to trial seems intended to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors should drop these bogus charges and the government should end its efforts to restrict press freedom by criminalizing independent reporting.”

On August 28, 2017, the Rattanakiri provincial prosecutor filed “incitement to commit a felony” charges against both journalists. If convicted under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code, they face up to two years in prison. Aun Pheap had been working as a reporter and Zsombor Peter as a reporter and associate editor at the Cambodia Daily. Both left Cambodia because of fears of being arbitrarily arrested and detained.

The case arose out of Pheap and Peter’s interviews with registered voters in Rattanakiri province prior to the Pate commune council elections on June 4, 2017. In 2012, Pate had been the only commune in the province that elected opposition political party candidates, leading local officials to tell journalists not to interview local residents. When Pheap and Peter refused the demand, the officials accused them of inciting voters to support the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).  

In June 2017, Pheap and Peter won the Excellence in Investigative Reporting award from the Society of Publishers in Asia for their reporting on military involvement in Cambodia’s illegal timber trade. Both had frequently written about illegal logging and government corruption in Rattanakiri and other provinces in Cambodia.

Government harassment of independent journalists has increased over the past two years, Human Rights Watch said. In July, Rattanakiri provincial authorities issued a letter demanding that all journalists report to them with identification and inform officials of their intentions before reporting on any stories in the province, VOD reported.

Two Radio Free Asia journalists, Uon Chin and Yeang Sothearin, continue to face baseless espionage charges, after being arbitrarily arrested and detained in 2017. While they were released under judicial supervision, the charges have not been dropped. On October 3, a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict them, but instead of dismissing the case, sent it back for re-investigation. On January 20, 2020, the Court of Appeal will hear Chin’s and Sothearin’s appeals of that decision.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has attacked and shut down independent media outlets. In September 2017, the Cambodia Daily, one of the country’s longstanding independent local newspapers, was forcibly shut after being handed a dubious unpaid tax bill of US$6.3 million. In May 2018, the government coerced the sale of the last independent local newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, to a Malaysian businessman with reported ties to the Cambodian government by imposing a similarly questionable unpaid tax bill of US$3.9 million. The newspaper was subsequently transferred to a ruling Cambodian People’s Party member.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) closed its office in Phnom Penh in September 2017, after 20 years of operations in Cambodia, citing threats to its staff. A few days after RFA’s office closure, the Interior Ministry threatened journalists who had worked for RFA with legal action if they continued reporting for RFA.

“Cambodia’s persecution of journalists is sending a message that independent, investigative reporting is not only unwelcome, but could get you thrown in jail,” Robertson said. “The European Union and other foreign governments should publicly call for these charges to be dismissed and urge the government to allow journalists to do their jobs without harassment.”