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Newspaper of Murdered Journalist Closes

A year after an opposition journalist was murdered in Phnom Penh, the paper he once wrote for is closing, even as the case goes unsolved.

Moneaksekar Khmer, or Khmer Conscience, ceased circulation Friday, following an apology to Prime Minister Hun Sen from its editor, Dam Sith, who faced charges of defamation and incitement by the courts.

In an interview Saturday, Dam Sith said he did not want to discuss the murder or the closing of the paper, saying only, “I am facing difficulties.”

Moneaksekar Khmer ran for 10 years, and its reporters faced extra-judicial attacks—incurring injuries, or being killed—and lawsuits in the courts, as it published stories critical of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and often favorable of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Reporters for the newspaper will now be out of work, but they worry still for their safety.

“I feel scared all the time,” said Vong Sopheak, a reporter for the paper who was injured in the March 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally. That attack killed at least 16 people and injured more than 150, and its perpetrators have never been caught.

“But we can’t think too much about the fear, or we couldn’t work,” Vong Sopheak said in a recent interview. “So we keep the scared feeling aside. I am shocked with fear and concern for my own security. I am scared that I could meet the same fate as Khim Sambo and his son, because security for journalists is so risky.”

Journalists for the now defunct paper meet other journalists from the mainstream media and now ask for jobs, Vong Sopheak said, adding that this will silence one half of the political debate in the country.

“I am sorry that people are going to lose a large portion of information,” he said. “A democratic society needs constructive criticism. Without constructive criticism, a democratic society won’t run smoothly.”

Meanwhile, the murder of Khim Sambo, who had written for the newspaper and was killed ahead of general elections last year, remains open.

Two weeks prior to Khim Sambo’s killing, the journalist wrote an article under a pseudonym, Srey Ka, alleging that a top police official had lost money gambling at Le Macau Casino in Bavet district, Svay Rieng province.

The gambling debts had cleaned out the official, who had lost $100,000, Khim Sambo reported. The casino returned half the money, which the police official soon lost in more gaming, only to force the casino to extend him a credit line. When a casino staff member refused, the official threatened to have him arrested, according to the report.

Following the July 11, 2008, murder, Reporters Without Borders urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to create an independent commission to investigate, claiming it had credible reports that Gen. Hok Lundy, the national police chief, may have been behind the crime and that police had covered it up. (Less than five months after Khim Samboi’s murder, Hok Lundy perished in a helicopter crash over his home province, Svay Rieng. Officials said bad weather brought the helicopter down.)

Ultimately, the US offered the services of a team of FBI agents to assist in the investigation, but no one was arrested, and Khim Sambo’s family has since fled the country.

Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, told VOA Khmer the authorities had worked hard to track down the murderers, but he declined to comment on the results of the investigation. He denied that police had been involved in a cover-up.

“It is not so. It is not so,” he said. “Whomever is involved, we must investigate. While the investigation is underway, I wish not to reveal [details].”

The ongoing investigation had been hindered by the family’s flight from the country, Khieu Sopheak said.

Chan Saveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, who personally inspected the crime scene and the bodies of Khmer Sambo and his son, said he had been deeply frustrated at the lack of arrests in the case and the rise in impunity the murders seemed to underscore.

“The case reflects the impunities in our country, relating to the murder of journalists, for example,” he said in a recent interview. “Impunity in our country is on the rise day by day. It is piling up. We are worried about it because after the murder, nothing was found.”