The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court on Tuesday dropped incitement charges against former Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, with the journalists expressing skepticism if it signaled an improvement in the country’s press freedom situation.
The court announced the development on Tuesday, after the plaintiff, former Pate commune chief Rmam Yuot, withdrew his complaint. Rmam Yuot had filed the complaint in 2017 when the two journalists were reporting a story in Ratanakkiri province, weeks before the commune election.
Keo Pisoth, spokesperson for the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, confirmed that Rmam Yuot had withdrawn the complaint and denied there was any external pressure to drop the charges. In December 2019, the court had also postponed a trial hearing without providing specific reasons.
Sek Sophorn, the reporters’ lawyer, said the plaintiff decided to withdraw the case because he couldn’t remember the exact events that had led to his complaint. Sek Sophorn added that judges reviewed the defendants’ testimonies in making their decision and wasn’t sure if there was any other reason for the court’s decision.
“I know nothing about this,” he said. “What I do is to defend the rights and interests of my clients based on pure technical methods.”
Zsombor Peter, who left the country and is working as a journalist in Southeast Asia, said that while it was unfair that he and Aun Pheap had to deal with the legal hassles of a court case, he was relieved the charges had been dropped.
“We should not have had to face a bogus incitement charge for the past three years, and the court should have thrown the case out from the start for being so obviously baseless, not after three years because the plaintiffs are withdrawing their nonsense complaint,” he wrote in an email on Wednesday.
He said the dropping of charges likely did not mean much or indicate an improvement in Cambodia’s press freedom situation because the courts were continuing to prosecute journalists for “doing their jobs.”
Press freedom advocates have expressed alarm at the increase in the use of courts against journalists, especially in 2020. Sovann Rithy, the founder of TVFB, was convicted last month and given a suspended sentence for reporting a speech made by Prime Minister Hun Sen. A newspaper publisher was also sentenced to 18 months in prison in October, and a radio station owner is awaiting a court verdict on alleged incitement charges.
In 2017, The Cambodia Daily was shut down over a contested tax bill and Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh bureau over security concerns and similar tax issues. The Phnom Penh Post was sold to a Malaysian investor in 2018, who had previously worked with Hun Sen’s government.
Aun Pheap, 57, said the development was likely linked to a new administration in the U.S. and to “trick” the international community into thinking the Cambodian government wasn’t targeting journalists.
Aun Pheap, the father of four children, has been living in the U.S. and has applied for asylum. He said it was hard being away from his family.
“Yes, the accusations against us are causing us a lot of trouble. We are separated from our wives, our children, and had to flee the country to escape arrest,” he said.
The veteran journalist was unsure if he would return to Cambodia and worried that he would be arrested if he resumed writing critical stories against the government or influential individuals.
“If I do journalism again, it will be easy for the [authorities] to one day say they don’t like [a story], they will review it and put us in jail,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for monitoring at local rights group Licadho, welcomed the dropping of the charges but maintained that the two journalists should not have faced legal proceedings because they had performed their work professionally.
"There should have never been any charges against them from the beginning. But even though the court has decided to drop the charges, we still regret it because both of them have been charged for many years," he said.
Nop Vy, executive director of the Cambodian Journalist Alliance, hoped that the Ratanakkiri court's decision would serve as a model for other provincial courts when dealing with press freedom cases.
“I think that the courts in other cities and provinces should look at this model of [deciding to] drop a charge and look at dropping all charges against journalists,” he said.