It was in the spring of 2017 that veteran Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter traveled to Pate commune, the only constituency among 50 in Ratanakiri province that Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, had failed to win in prior local elections.
Aiming to find out why Pate was the only commune in the rural province to back the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, or SRP, in 2012, Aun Pheap and Peter spent a day asking random locals about coming polls and interviewing then-incumbent SRP commune chief Romam Yuot.
Shortly after publishing the article, the reporters were faced with charges of “incitement to commit a felony,” while their employer was hit with a $6.3 million tax bill and a prime minister’s order to pay up or “pack up.”
Long known for diligent reporting on government corruption and human rights violations — along with extensive exposes on illegal logging and labor violations in the country’s garment sector — The Cambodia Daily published its final print edition Sept. 4.
With the first incitement hearing slated for Wednesday, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranks Cambodia 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, has called for immediate withdrawal of the “absurd, trumped-up charges.”
RSF, like other international free press advocates, says charges levied against Aun Pheap and Peter likely have nothing to do with their 2017 news reports filed from Pate, but only to serve as an example to others.
“This whole fabricated process [is] clearly a way for the Hun Sen clan to notify journalists that this would be what they risk if they dare to report independently,” said Daniel Bastard, RSF’s Asia-Pacific expert, who also warned that the looming trial is bound to have the effect of greater self-censorship among journalists.
“Scheduling the initial hearing on Dec. 25 is an additional mean trick of the kind you expect from the most authoritarian regimes, which often take advantage of the end-of-year holidays in many democratic countries to violate human rights without too much publicity,” said the RSF statement. “Well-known Chinese blogger Wu Gan was sentenced to eight years in prison on 26 December 2017. And it was on 25 December 2009 that a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and RSF Press Freedom laureate, to 11 years in prison.”
Pheap, 55, who has since fled to the United States, and Peter, 41, who continues covering Southeast Asia from outside Cambodia, face up to two years in prison if convicted.
We caught up with Peter, a Canadian journalist and regular contributor to VOA.
VOA: Are these charges about your reports on a given commune voting against Hun Sen’s continued leadership, or are they really about reports on illegal logging?
Zsombor Peter: I have no clue. I wish I could give you a more satisfying answer. If I could, that would mean I knew who all were truly behind this case. But I simply don’t know, so it’s all just a guess. That’s one of the most frustrating things about this case —not knowing who is really suing us. The people who filed the complaint are just puppets.
The puppet masters could be the illegal logging syndicates we’ve upset with our investigative reporting, ruling-party politicians scared of honest election coverage, or both.
What I am sure of is that the charge against Pheap and I is not only baseless, but absurd, conjured out of thin air. Two of the three people accusing us of incitement spoke with us willingly; the third was never even approached for an interview. How can that be “incitement to commit a felony”? What’s more, no one has ever explained what felony we were allegedly inciting people to, because the lie of this case is so transparent that they can’t come up with one. All that is to say that the case is purely politically motivated.
VOA: Aun Pheap has relocated to the U.S., but you continue to report from the region. Has the recent announcement of a trial date created problems for you personally and/or professionally? Are you now forced to keep a lower profile?
ZP: The case has caused me trouble since the charge was laid in October 2017. Pretrial detention is common practice in Cambodia, in politically motivated cases especially, so the possibility of arrest became very real at that point. That makes a return risky, especially to report. So that’s eight years of country knowledge I built up that I can’t use. And, as a reporter who still covers Southeast Asia, that means fewer job opportunities. If I’m convicted, that also raises the possibility of being extradited back to Cambodia to serve my sentence.
VOA: What advice might you have for other reporters faced with these types of politically motivated charges? Would you advocate staying put and continuing to report despite the threat of imprisonment or worse? Or, would you encourage reporters to find a safe space to report from a reasonably safe distance?
ZP: I left Cambodia in October 2017, when I was charged. So I’m in no position to give advice on whether others should leave or stay put.
VOA: If you could make a prepared statement to the court about these charges, what would it be?
ZP: I would not make a prepared statement for this “court.” I would reserve a prepared statement for a real court, a court where the facts might make a difference. The fact that this case has progressed to trial without a shred of evidence is proof enough that this is not a court.
VOA: If you could return to Cambodia and report on any topic you like without fear of reprisal, what would it be?
ZP: I would report on the same things I was reporting on before I left Cambodia, which over eight years were many. They would include the illegal logging business and all other forms of corruption; the government’s repression of peaceful dissent; labor rights abuses, mainly in the garment sector, and human rights abuses more broadly; Cambodia’s balancing act with China on one hand and Europe and the U.S. on the other; and the government’s damming of the Mekong River and its tributaries. I also reported often on Cambodia’s ongoing battle with malaria drug resistance and UXO contamination and would want to pick that up as well.