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Ex-Cambodia Daily Reporters Reject Incitement Charge As Case Heads to Trial

Zsombor Peter (left) and Aun Pheap are both facing up to two years in prison on a trumped-up charge of incitement to commit a felony (Courtesy photo of Ben Woods)

Rights groups have routinely called the charges politically motivated and an attempt by the government to intimidate local and international journalists working in Cambodia.

An alleged incitement case against two former Cambodia Daily journalists will be heard by the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on December 25, more than two years after they were first charged for reporting on a story in the province.

Former Cambodia Daily reporters, Aun Pheap and Canadian Zsombor Peter, were charged by Ratanakkiri provincial authorities for "incitement,” while covering a story in the province prior to the 2017 Commune Election. The story revolved around why Pate commune was the only constituency won by the opposition in the 2012 ballot.

The charges were filed after local officials told the two journalists to not interview locals in the province’s Pate commune, without providing any official reasons for the request. If convicted, the two reporters could be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

While Aun Pheap is currently seeking asylum, and works at Radio Free Asia in the United States, Zsombor Peter left Cambodia following the allegations.

Keo Pisoth, spokesperson for the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said that the case had moved forward because the investigating judge had found evidence to formalize the charges and send the case to trial.

“We followed the people’s complaint. I don’t know if [this case] is threatening [to journalists] or not,” Keo Pisoth said.

Rights groups have routinely called the charges politically motivated and an attempt by the government to intimidate local and international journalists working in Cambodia. They have reiterated calls to drop the charges against the two reporters.

Following the commune election in 2017, the Cambodia Daily was forcefully closed down after it was slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill by the government – a move seen by rights groups as a way to shut down the fiercely independent daily.

In an email, Zsombor Peter said the case was based on a bogus charge, a claim, he added, was backed up by a slew of similar cases against opposition members and activists.

“It is politically motivated, meant to intimidate and silence independent journalists like us from doing our jobs honestly,” Peter said.

Aun Pheap, the 55-year-old former Cambodia Daily journalist, also told VOA Khmer that the trial was meant to be a threat to local and international journalists, especially those who investigate and write about sensitive news stories.

“This hearing is just an excuse to put a burden on both of us and to intimidate other independent journalists to not step over the line,” he said.

Aun Pheap routinely wrote about illegal logging, often exposing the nexus between businesses and officials in promoting the corrupt practice. The reporting partners won the Society of Publishers in Asia award in 2017 for investigative reporting, in a story that uncovered the Cambodian military’s involvement in illegal logging operations.

But, for Pheap, the hardest part of this case has been living in the U.S. and being away from his family, especially his four children.

“I have been out here for more than two years. Since I first came here, I have been separated from them till now,” Aun Pheap said.

Sek Sophorn, their lawyer, who will attend the trial on Wednesday, said there was no evidence to show his clients had committed a crime, and that they were only reporting a story, like reporters are permitted to do in Cambodia.

“They asked the questions and whether people answered or not is up to those people,” he said. “They published all the information they got. So, for me, I don't see the whole thing as incitement, as the court has accused them.”

The case comes as two former Radio Free Asia journalists are also facing legal cases for alleged espionage, and another unfounded pornography charge. While the trial was completed in August, the judge has ordered further investigation into the charges, delaying a verdict in the case.

Soeung Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said it was getting harder for independent journalists to work in Cambodia, especially if they published investigative news stories.

“In journalism, especially [reporters] doing journalism professionally and who dare to research political or social issues, whether related to the powerful or the government, we see that there are always challenges,” he said.