From journalist to defendant in espionage case: A conversation on Cambodia Press Freedom with Khmer journalist who was jailed for 9 months.

In 2017, independent media in Cambodia faced a difficult situation. Cambodia Daily, an English daily newspaper that was established in 1993 announced its immediate closure in September after it was demanded to pay 10 years of taxes retroactively in the sum of 6.3 million US dollars or equilibrium of 195 million Baht. The daily comment on this regard that the amount that it was demanded to pay was arbitrary in nature and has not been calculated by proper auditing. The daily also expressed that it believes there was political motivation behind this demand. Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia once strongly stated about the Daily "The thief (Cambodia Daily) did not pay tax for the past 10 years, never pay tax since it had been operated."       
 
Apart from the Cambodia Daily, other independent media was repeatedly criticized by the Cambodia Government, such as Radio Free Asia who also faced difficulties with taxation. Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a nonprofit media agency of the United State that was created to disseminate information in countries in Asia where access to information is limited in countries like Lao, Vietnam, and Cambodia. RFA was funded by the US Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Cambodia RFA has had offices in Cambodia since 1996.
 
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In September 2017, RFA decided to close its office in Phnom Penh after it was under risk to face difficulty with taxes. However, its Khmer news section continues to operate at its head office in Washington D.C. Information from the ground was transmitted to headquarter with the help of freelance journalists. In this regard, Ouk Kimseng, speaker of the Ministry of Information, commented on one occasion that when journalists act in the same manner of spies, it is likely that they had bad intention. He also stated further that any action on such case was outside the authority of the Ministry of Information but it would be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.  Later in November 2017, 2 former RFA journalist, Yeang Sothearin and Oun Chhin, were arrested and charged with espionage. Both remained in custody pending trial until they were temporarily released in August 2018 after the national election was held in July 2018.      
 
Sothearin told iLaw that he started his career as a journalist with the RFA in mid-2013. Sothearin clarified that the RFA in Cambodia did not own radio frequency or television stations. It only broadcast via short wave radio and on internet live video, radio program as well as written articles were published in both Khmer and English. Sothearin himself ran both the radio program as well as the internet live video program. He also wrote some article published on RFA website.
         
Content that Sothearin covered including human rights violation, border disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam, and land disputes between Cambodian people and the government or the corporate. When Global Witness, a non-profit organization that works on corruption, publicized a report titled "Hostile Takeover: The corporate empire of Cambodia's ruling family" exposing the influence Cambodia's first family has over Cambodian's business, Sothearin also wrote an article about this issue. In July 2016, Sothearin hosted a radio program with Kem Ley, a prominent Cambodian political annalist who often made critical comments against Cambodian Government. A couple of days after, Kem Ley was shot dead in a gas station in Phnom Penh. Sothearin concluded his 4-year journalist career with RFA in September 2017 after the Phnom Penh office was shut down. However, the loss of his career was just "appetizer" before he faced a huge storm 3 months later when he was arrested along with Oun Chin, another veteran of RFA Cambodia.
 
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Sothearin recalled that on 14 November Uon Chhin called him sometime in the evening saying that police officials had raided his hotel room. As soon as he had been informed by Oun Chin, Sothearin rushed to Oun Chin's studio with the hope to explain the police that Oun Chin is no longer employed by the RFA. Once the police knew that he used to work for RFA they also arrested him along with Oun Chin. According to Sotherin, the police informed him that he and Oun Chin provided information that was deemed to be harmful to National Security or the Interest of Cambodia to foreign states or foreign agents. According to Cambodia law, espionage is an offense under section 445 of the Criminal Code which provides prison sentences ranging from 7 up to 15 years. Sotherin said that after he and Oun Chin was arrested they remained in police custody for 48 hours without access to a lawyer.
 
After 48 hours passed, Sothearin and Oun Chin were brought before the Phnom Penh Provincial Court, the court denied both of them bail on the ground that they may flee the country or not cooperate with the court. Sothearin tried to ask the court and the police regarding the details of his accusation, what exactly is information that both of them had sent, who were the recipients and when was the date that information had been sent? The court and the police answered him with silence. The police and the court only informed him and Oun Chin that they had committed the offense in the year 2017. 
 
After being detained in the prison for 9 months Sothearin and Oun Chin were released on bail from the prison in August 2018. Sotherin believes that he and Oun Chin were released on bail as part of a government scheme to reduce political tension after the General Election was held in July 2018. Sothearin admitted that nine months in prison was long and difficult. However, having heard that Cambodian society and the worldwide journalist community were aware of his detention, Sothearin had the strength to continue with his journalism. 
 
When asked about the progress of his trial, Sothearin replied that the investigating judge had finished their job and the case file is now in hands of the trial judge, however, scheduling for the trial has not been arranged yet. 
 

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The Cambodia Daily stop publicized its print edition in 2017 (photo from facebook page Museum of Commonners)
 
Sothearin concluded that the closure of RFA office in Phnom Penh was just one among many other incidents which showed that independent media were systematically targeted after the Commune Election in 2017. Following this election, the government had witnessed the rise of popularity of the opposition party. Apart from the cases of RFA and Cambodia Daily, Sothearin also stated that at least 30 local radio stations which allowed RFA or Voice of America to rent its airtime were also targeted. Sothearin believes that the closure of media outlets as well as his arrest must have had some connection with General Election that was set to be held in July 2018.

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