Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is seen in Phnom Penh on August 3, 2022. The prime minister's bodyguards recently detained five journalists covering environmental issues. (AP/Vincent Thian)

Cambodian prime minister’s bodyguards detain 5 journalists covering environmental issues

Bangkok, August 22, 2022 – Cambodian authorities must thoroughly investigate the recent detention and harassment of five journalists by members of the prime minister’s security team, and hold those responsible to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

On August 16, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguards detained five journalists with the independent news outlet VOD while they covered a land clearing operation in the Phnom Tamao forest sanctuary in the southern province of Takeo, according to a report by the local outlet CamboJA News and VOD representative Ananth Baliga, who communicated with CPJ via email.

Accusing the journalists of trespassing into a prohibited area, the bodyguards detained videographer Hy Chhay and four reporters who did not want their names disclosed, citing security concerns, according to Baliga.

Authorities held the team for about seven hours at the Bati district police station, during which bodyguards slapped Chhay across the face after he refused to hand over his phone, which he had used to record officers questioning the group, according to Baliga and that report.

The journalists were released after being forced to sign a statement saying that they flew a drone without official permission in the sanctuary area, according to those sources.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit should work to protect, not harass and assault, independent journalists in Cambodia,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Those responsible for the recent detention and abuse of reporters with independent news outlet VOD should be identified and held to account.”

Authorities told the journalists that they were not permitted to photograph, film, or fly drones in Phnom Tamao, claiming that photos and recordings could be used to spread false information, according to a joint statement condemning the incident signed by local and international groups.

The bodyguards also detained four environmental activists, and attacked one of them, punching him in the face and kicking his head, according to CamboJA News.

VOD previously used drones to report on deforestation in the area after Hun Sen’s government gave clearing concessions to private business groups, a policy that was reversed after news reports revealed the extent of the environmental damage, the joint statement said. On the day of the journalists’ detention, the prime minister announced that his bodyguard unit would be responsible for removing fallen timber and replanting trees in Phnom Tamao following the policy reversal, VOD reported.

CPJ emailed Cambodia’s Ministry of Information for comment but did not immediately receive any response.