Extortion claims raise alarm
by Rann Reuy and Cameron Wells
Siem Reap Province
A RECENT spate of complaints against journalists accused of attempting to extort money from wood-vendors has sparked a debate about whether courts are being used to silence reporting on illegal logging, a crime that Prime Minister Hun Sen waged a very public crackdown against earlier this year.
On Monday, officials from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Koh Santepheap reporter Sim Samnang, who has been held in Siem Reap provincial court since April after a warehouse owner accused him of attempted extortion. The owner of the warehouse alleged in a complaint that Sim Samnang threatened to expose his operation to authorities unless he was paid a bribe.
Christophe Peschoux, the country representative of the UNOHCHR, declined to comment on the specifics of the visit Monday, saying representatives from his office have not yet returned to
The complaint against Sim Samnang is similar to several others that have been filed since April, when attention to the government’s campaign against illegal logging climaxed with the April 6 removal of Forestry Administration director Ty Sokun.
Later that month, three journalists in Kampong Cham province were accused of extorting money from wood-vendor Mey Kim Huon, who accused them of threatening to publish stories accusing her of selling illegal wood unless she paid them US$300. All three – Chea Lyheang, Tong Sophon and Thorng Kimhuoth – were arrested and then granted provisional release, and their case is still being investigated, Chea Lyheang said Monday.
Khorn Bora, a reporter for the Ponleu Thmey newspaper, was arrested on April 2009 on fraud charges after he was accused of extorting US$300 from the owner of a timber warehouse in Siem Reap. He remains in pretrial detention at the provincial court.
Observers are split on whether the complaints reflect an attempt by wood-vendors to intimidate reporters – thereby discouraging them from covering a sensitive issue that merits investigation – or whether the reporters are in fact guilty of trying to exploit the government’s crackdown for easy money.
Sam Rithy Duong Hak, a member and former vice president of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), said while his organisation would support journalists’ attempts to report on illegal logging, he suspected that some were guilty of extortion.
“We do not support anyone who does not comply with the journalist code of ethics,” he said. “We need a professional press with no more extortion, illegal acts [or] people who harm other people for money. They have to change their behaviour.”
But Ou Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said he believed there was a direct link between the government’s logging crackdown and the complaints, which he said amounted to intimidation. “It says a lot about the current system that they go after the messenger but they do not go after the company in the first place,” he said.
He went on to allege that illegal logging in Siem Reap province and elsewhere was backed by high-ranking officials -- a problem Hun Sen himself has acknowledged in past remarks -- and questioned why the warehouses at the centre of the extortion complaints had not been investigated by prosecutors.
Siem Reap prosecutor Ty Soveinthal countered that investigations were taking place, even if he wasn’t personally involved in them. “I am not a beggar: why do I need to check all the warehouses?” he said. “I have other skilled officers to go check them. If they find out the warehouses are unlicensed they can file a complaint to me.”
But Mouen Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said he too was also concerned that, when it comes to illegal logging investigations, the trail seems to come up cold once a journalist is arrested. “Journalists are arrested for extorting money, and the story stops,” he said. “There is no more investigation into [the warehouses]. There is a bad habit of Cambodian officials in Siem Reap, of officials or businesspersons to arrest journalists.”
“They are very vulnerable,” he said. “They are paid for the stories they write, about $5. When they try to cover the story, they can be offered a bribe which is sometimes $50.”
For his part, Sim Samnang denied the charges against him on Monday, describing it as unfounded. He said he had told UNOHCHR officials that he was concerned that his arrest would stifle reporting on illegal logging.
“I do not know what the UN officials wanted from me or how they will help me,” he said. “but I told them the situation for journalists is very bad.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA