Bangkok, July 24, 2019 -- Cambodia should drop espionage charges against two former Radio Free Asia reporters and stop using anti-state charges to harass journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On July 26, Uon Chhin, a videographer, and Yeang Sothearin, previously a news editor at the U.S. Congress-funded station, are due to appear in Phnom Penh Municipal Court to face criminal anti-state charges, according to Radio Free Asia spokesperson Rohit Mahajan, who communicated with CPJ by email.
In September 2017, Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh bureau and suspended its news operations under official pressure related to its registration status, as CPJ reported at the time.
The pair were arrested on November 14, 2017, and were accused of installing broadcasting equipment in a Phnom Penh guesthouse to secretly transmit news reports back to Radio Free Asia's headquarters in Washington, The Cambodia Daily reported at the time. The same report said police seized a voice recorder, microphone, laptop, and video monitor from the guesthouse.
The broadcaster has maintained that it no longer had ties with the journalists at the time of their arrest and denied they were working on its behalf, according to local news reports. If found guilty on charges of providing "a foreign state with information which undermines national defense," the journalists could face up to 15 years in prison, according to those reports.
"Cambodia should immediately drop the spurious charges against former Radio Free Asia reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "As long as Cambodia treats journalists like criminals, its reputation as a failed democracy will remain."
The journalists were held in pre-trial detention for more than nine months after they were first arrested, until they were released on bail in August 2018 under restrictions requiring them to check in with local police monthly and barring them from leaving the country or changing their addresses, according to a report by Radio Free Asia.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Radio Free Asia, said in a statement that the equipment seized in the guest house was for a karaoke business the former reporters were planning to open.
The reporters have consistently denied the espionage charges, according to that Radio Free Asia report. Mahajan, the broadcaster's spokesperson, said the charges were "unsubstantiated" and should be dismissed "without delay," in a statement released ahead of the trial, which CPJ reviewed.
CPJ emailed Cambodia's Ministry of Information for comment on the case but did not immediately receive a response. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for the journalists or their lawyers.
[Editor's Note: The second paragraph of this article has been changed to correct the date when the trial will begin.]