‘Climate of fear’: Cambodian court charges journalists with espionage
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‘Climate of fear’: Cambodian court charges journalists with espionage

A CAMBODIAN court on Saturday charged two journalists with espionage for filing news reports to a US-funded radio station, prompting local journalists to write an open letter calling for their release.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were arrested Nov 14 over their installation of broadcasting equipment to allegedly report back to the agency’s office without permission from the government. The two were charged with “providing information that is destructive to national defense to a foreign state”, when they were caught filing stories to RFA, said Ly Sophana, a spokesman at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. If convicted, the men face up to 15 years in prison.

Both had formerly worked for Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) that closed its Phnom Penh offices in September after nearly 20 years of operation, citing a government crackdown on free press. RFA has maintained, however, that it has had no ties with the two journalists since its office shutdown.

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“In charging two former RFA journalists with espionage, Cambodian authorities have opened the door to more serious forms of intimidation worthy of despots and dictators,” RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan told Reuters.

A lawyer for the two said the charges were too serious and they had merely been doing their jobs as journalists.

“This is not dangerous to the country,” said the lawyer, Keo Vanny.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the strongman who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has taken a strident anti-American line in an increasingly tense run-up to a 2018 election and there has been a crackdown on critics, rights groups and independent media.

Hun Sen’s government has been accused of creating a climate of fear for journalists, the arrest and campaign against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin being the latest example of mounting animosity towards the press.

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On Sunday, government mouthpiece Fresh News published photographs supposedly showing Uon Chhin filming gay pornography. According to a senior police official at the Interior Ministry, the photos and videos were found on Uon Chhin’s computer, and can now be used to lodge new charges against the journalist of working “with foreigners to violate Cambodian morality.”

Given the source of the photographs, has led some to question their authenticity, fearing that this may be yet another tactic designed to smear and target journalists.

In an open letter released Sunday, local journalists called for the release of the former-RFA journalists, saying the charges were creating a “climate of fear” for journalists working professionally in the country.

Additional reporting by Reuters