Hun Sen's media witch-hunt must end

Hun Sen's media witch-hunt must end

Almost two years after their arrest on outlandish charges of "espionage", two of Cambodia's finest journalists are snared by a government assault on free expression. At the heart of their legal woes is their past work for Radio Free Asia, a US-funded broadcaster that has long been a trusted source of independent news in the country.

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin spent nine months in pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh's squalid Prey Sar Prison after their Nov 14, 2017, arrest. They were then released on bail but their torment continues. They await the outcome of an unpredictable trial that could yet see them sentenced to 15 years.

The verdict has already been postponed twice. Although the trial was said to have concluded in August, the presiding judge declared on Oct 3 the evidence was insufficient to rule the men guilty or innocent. But rather than acquit them, he ordered a "re-investigation", meaning Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin's ordeal at the hands of Cambodia's politicised court system continues to this day with no end in sight.

International focus on Cambodia has been on Prime Minister Hun Sen's clash with the main political opposition party which was outlawed in 2017, making Cambodia a de facto one-party state. With opposition leaders and activists treated as national traitors and criminals, the democracy that was meant to rise from the ashes of civil war after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements lies in ruins.

The government's treatment of a free press has been just as egregious.

In Cambodia, state prosecutors equate independent journalism with espionage. They charged both men with providing "information that is destructive to national defence to a foreign state", on the pretext that they continued to work in secret for Radio Free Asia after it was forced to shutter its Phnom Penh bureau in September 2017, two months before their arrest.

In fact, their contract with RFA had expired that September. With no job and in need of income, Uon Chhin had opened a karaoke production studio, which the government claimed was a clandestine news bureau. For good measure, prosecutors later added a pornography charge against both men.

The arbitrary nature of the legal process against them reflects deeper problems. Cambodia has dashed international hopes that it would reckon with its haunting past under the murderous Khmer Rouge rule of the late 1970s and embrace democracy with strong, credible civil society institutions.

Instead, its judiciary is widely viewed as a tool of the government to crush dissent.

Social activists and reporters, as well as opposition party members, have repeatedly fallen foul of a prejudicial legal system.

In January, opposition activist Kong Mas was arrested for writing on Facebook that the European Union planned to impose tariffs on Cambodian rice, which proved correct. Kong Mas was later sentenced to 18 months on separate charges related to his political activism.

Labour activist Rath Roth Mony was deported from Thailand and sentenced in June to two years for helping Russian state-owned TV network RT make a documentary about child prostitution in Cambodia.

Then in July, Cambodian military police arrested journalists Hun Sokha and Keo Ratana for reporting protests against forced evictions in the southern city of Sihanoukville. They too, face serious charges under the country's criminal code.

The prosecution of Uon Chhin, a cameraman, and Yeang Sothearin, an editor and anchor, has proceeded despite a dearth of evidence. It undermines the high-minded declaration of the Cambodian government in December that it "cherishes" a free press and that RFA would be welcome to re-open its in-country bureau.

It has left both men and their family members in limbo. Yeang Sothearin's two young children cling to him fearing that he could be torn away from them at any moment. His and Uon Chhin's passports have been confiscated. For Yeang Sothearin, this means he cannot visit his ailing father, an indigenous Khmer living in southern Vietnam.

Thirty-seven groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, last month jointly condemned the continued investigation. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has already concluded that Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin should be unconditionally released and given compensation.

So, almost two years on, it's long overdue for Cambodia's government to end the pointless persecution of two proud journalists, which has become emblematic of the country's descent into authoritarianism. If they are cleared of all charges, Hun Sen could rekindle some fading hope for democracy and the freedom of expression.

Libby Liu is President of Radio Free Asia.


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