A Cambodian court is scheduled to issue a verdict Friday in the case of two journalists who worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia who are charged with espionage.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are accused of undermining national security by supplying information to a foreign state, an act punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Rights groups consider the case against the two as a clear attack on freedom of the press.
“As long as Cambodia treats journalists like criminals, its reputation as a failed democracy will remain,” Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said last month.
The two were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. The crackdown, which included a court-ordered dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition party, was generally seen as an effort to ensure victory for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election.
Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades, but in recent years has tightened his grip as his political opponents began to pose a bigger threat at the polls.
The two defendants are accused of sending secret information to Radio Free Asia after it closed its office in Cambodia. They acknowledged sending news to their former employer but said it involved openly available information.
Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh office, citing “unprecedented” government intimidation of the media. By the end of 2017, Cambodia’s government had closed more than two dozen local radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast RFA’s programs. The English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily also was forced to close, muting almost all independent media inside the country.
Police initially said Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for Radio Free Asia and were charged with espionage. They testified that they had been building a karaoke studio to earn some income since their employment with Radio Free Asia had ended.
They have been free on bail, but their release has been conditional on making monthly police station visits and having their passports confiscated, which they said makes it difficult to find jobs.
RFA is funded by an independent U.S. government agency and says its mission is “to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.” Its programs are aired by radio and television and carried online.