Arson attack follows anonymous threat against Cambodian journalist

NEW YORK, August 15, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Cambodian government to launch an independent investigation into the recent arson attack on the home of Phan Phat, a journalist with the local Khmer language newspaper Chbas Kar.

According to local press freedom groups and news reports, Phat’s wooden house was set ablaze by unknown assailants at around 4 a.m. on August 10 in the Boeng Khnar commune of Porsat province. The small blaze was quickly extinguished and Phat and his family escaped without injury. Phat was quoted by local media as saying that he had received an anonymous phone call threatening to give him a “gift” the day before the attack, according to the same reports.

Commune Police Chief Sann Ly was quoted in a local publication as saying that the attack was likely in “revenge” for Phat’s recent reporting on illegal logging activities in the province’s Bakan district. District Police Chief Youk Yoen told reporters that judging by the small amount of gasoline used in the arson attack, the assailants likely did not mean to kill the reporter and his family. The police official said his office was approaching the case as “an attack on the free press.”

“There is strong reason to believe that the attack on Phan Phat was motivated by his work as a journalist,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Cambodian authorities must act quickly and decisively to uncover who is responsible.”

Illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia’s provincial areas. Reporters who dare to publish on the activities often face threats, physical attacks, and sometimes death. An investigative report released in May by UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness accused several high ranking Cambodian officials of complicity in illegal logging, including a senior official inside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit. Government officials denied any involvement in illegal logging.

The government ordered a ban on the report’s distribution and the Ministry of Information issued a blanket order to local media outlets not to publish on the report’s findings. Lem Pichpisey, a radio reporter with Radio Free Asia, nonetheless aired several news stories on the report’s allegations. He later received an anonymous death threat by telephone. The radio reporter was forced to flee Cambodia for neighboring Thailand on June 17 due to his editors’ concerns about his personal security.