Bangkok, November 16, 2017--Two former reporters with the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Asia were detained in Cambodia on November 14 on suspicion of illegally producing and disseminating news, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Cambodian authorities to immediately release the pair and drop any charges against them.
Uon Chhin, a former RFA videographer, and Yeang Sothearin, a former RFA editor and office coordinator, were taken to Phnom Penh's municipal police headquarters and held for questioning, the reports said. They were still in detention today, according to news reports.
Phnom Penh Police Deputy Police Chief Sim Vuthy said that the two reporters would be taken to court tomorrow to face espionage charges, according to reports. The police chief said that the two could be charged under Article 445 of the criminal code, a provision that bans providing "a foreign state with information which undermines national defense," the reports said. Convictions under the law carry maximum 15-year prison sentences.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that the pair were being investigated for allegedly setting up a broadcast studio for RFA, according to the same news report. Chhin and Sothearin denied the accusation, according to reports.
The Cambodia Daily reported that the two former journalists were accused of secretly installing broadcasting equipment in a guest house in the capital's Meancheay district and sending news reports to the station's headquarters in Washington, D.C. The report said police seized a voice recorder, microphone, laptop, and video monitor from the guesthouse.
RFA closed its Phnom Penh bureau and suspended its in-country news operations in September under official pressure related to its registration as a licensed media company. The broadcaster said it no longer had ties with the journalists and denied they were working on its behalf, according to reports.
"CPJ calls for the immediate release of former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, and an end to the official intimidation of all journalists in Cambodia," said CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin. "Prime Minister Hun Sen's reputation as a democratic leader is at a new low. He should reverse the course of this media crackdown now."
The government announced after RFA closed its bureau that its reporters would not be given official press passes to report in the country, the Phnom Penh Post report said.
In recent months, authorities have closed at least 19 radio stations nationwide on charges they had violated their state operating contracts by airing RFA's news programs, CPJ has found. The crackdown comes ahead of a general election due to be held next year. Hun Sen said today that the vote would take place, despite the Supreme Court banning the main opposition party, according to Reuters.