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Journalist Recounts Flight After Death Threat

[Editor’s note: Lem Pichpisey, a 40-year-old reporter for Radio Free Asia, arrived in Norway under UN protection last month following reported death threats and a flight with his family from Cambodia last year. The government and spokesmen for Prime Minister Hun Sen have repeatedly denied allegations of involvement in illegal logging, a subject of Lem Pichpisey’s reporting ahead of the threat. Lem Pichpisey spoke to VOA Khmer by phone.]

Q. Can you tell us briefly about why you fled to Norway?

A. I decided to leave my beloved Cambodia because I received a death threat, when someone put a bullet outside my Battambang house to scare me. My daughter found the bullet when she was sweeping dirt in front of the house. We thought this was the last sign and that we had to leave Cambodia, and I should give up on the profession of journalism.

Someone had threatened my life before the bullet in front of my house. The first death threat I received was while I was investigating and reporting about massive illegal deforestation at Prey Long, in Tum Rinh commune, San Dan district, Kampong Thom province. After that, I received a death threat while I was reporting this issue for Radio Free Asia, and it was exactly the same as the [government-banned] Global Witness report published June 1.

When I verified my investigation with that report, it was exactly the same on illegal deforestation, which involved Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family members and high-ranking military officials of Military Division 70 and a group of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, and especially Hun Sen’s in-laws. They were involved in this destruction, according to my investigation and the Global Witness report.

Q. When you first received a death threat, where did you go? You then returned to Cambodia. Why?

A. I escaped to Thailand, because I thought that at least Thailand had more democracy than Cambodia. The reason I came back to Cambodia was that I had committed myself to work fighting for democracy and the rule of law after I received the knowledge from US-provided training about international journalism and media management. After that training, I wanted to show my gratitude by sacrificing myself to training and bring about human rights, democracy and real freedom of expression to the Cambodian people.

Because I still loved the profession of journalism, I left Thailand and came back to Cambodia and told my boss at Radio Free Asia in Washington that I could not live in Thailand anymore, that I needed to go back to Cambodia. Some people had asked me why I had to come back to Cambodia, didn’t I feel scared? I told them that I felt scared, but I needed to ask the International Human Rights organization to pressure the government, and when the situation calmed down a bit, I could go back to Cambodia and continue my journalism.

Q. What happened with the second death threat? How many threats were there? And where did you flee for you life?

A. I received another death threat early in November 2007. I escaped to Thailand again because I had published Free Press Magazine, a compilation of many reports about illegal logging, the death of dancer Piseth Pilika and the report of Global Witness. That was a legal magazine, because I had permission from the Ministry of Information already. The police came to my office in Phnom Penh to confiscate more than 2,000 magazines without telling me ahead of time.

We knew that the police had come to my office to copy some documents, and I was also told by some friends working in the government that the government sent secret agents to investigate me. We knew that the police came to check my background at my home in Battambang province. At that point, I was scared, forcing me to leave Cambodia.

Q. In Thailand, which organization protected you?

A. I received a lot of support from international human rights organizations, including [UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] in Cambodia. I want to clarify that the protection is not against the Cambodian government. But it is a sign that the freedoms of expression and media in Cambodia are still weak, and journalists still suffer from death threats, persecution and intimidation.

So those international organizations issued press releases or statements of protection and urged the government to end human rights violations against activists and journalists. Some of the international organizations that issued press releases to support me were the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Adhoc, journalism clubs and the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and others. That meant there was a spirit of support from national and international non-governmental organizations.