Bangkok, October 10, 2017-- The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the legal harassment of Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, two journalists who worked for the shuttered Cambodia Daily, and calls on Cambodian authorities to drop all charges against the pair.
A Cambodian state prosecutor filed criminal charges against Pheap and Peter for their election-related news coverage in the eastern Rattanakiri province, and accused them of "inciting violence" while reporting, according to the independent daily Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily's former editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge.
Pheap, a local reporter, and Peter, a Canadian editor, became aware of the charges on October 5, though Rattanakiri prosecutor Chea Pich filed them on August 28, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
A state prosecutor on August 22 questioned the two reporters at the Rattanakiri Provincial Court, but no formal charges were lodged at the time, according to the Phnom Penh Post. According to the news report, if found guilty of incitement, the reporters each face a potential two years in prison.
The charges stem from the journalists' reporting on past support for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue party in the Pate commune in Rattanakiri, ahead of June 4 national commune elections.
"The incitement charges against journalists Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter should be dropped immediately," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "We urge Prime Minister Hun Sen to cease and desist his government's campaign of intimidation against independent media, and allow reporters to do their jobs without fear of reprisal."
Commune chief Rmam Yout, along with two other villagers, alleged the reporters intended to "incite" violence by interviewing them about why their commune had previously elected the opposition party.
Cambodia's information ministry imposed sweeping guidelines against election news coverage that could affect "public order" or cause "fear or any violence" ahead of the polls, CPJ documented.
Sek Sophom, the reporters' lawyer, said the questions they asked were routine news reporting, and that there was no legal ground for the charges, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
The incitement charges are the latest in a series of legal actions taken against the Cambodia Daily. The newspaper published its last edition on September 4 amid allegations that the paper owed $6.3 million in unpaid taxes dating back to 2007, CPJ documented. The paper denied it owes the amount.
The information ministry refused to renew the paper's license until the tax issue is resolved. Immigration officials have since blocked the paper's American manager Douglas Steele from leaving the country, a move he likened to "country arrest" in a phone conversation with CPJ.
Steele and deputy publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele are both on an immigration 'no fly' list, and authorities froze the newspaper's local bank accounts, DeJonge told CPJ by email.