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Cambodian Reporters' Legal Limbo Traumatizes Their Families

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, former journalists from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), who have been charged with espionage, speak to the media in front of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 3, 2019.

Surrounded by a scrum of journalists bristling with equipment and shouting questions, 8-year-old Yeang Socheata has the been-here-done-that air of a person twice her height.

Her hand firmly intertwined with her father's, she ignores uniformed security guards trying to keep the crowd contained.

Her father, Yeang Sothearin, 36, and his colleague, Uon Chhin, 50, are the two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters arrested in Cambodia in November 2017. They denied charges of espionage and producing pornography. Their lawyer said they had only been doing their jobs as journalists.

Their arrests came as Prime Minister Hun Sen's government was cracking down on the press ahead of the July 2018 national election. Radio stations were shuttered and the English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to close after receiving a tax bill of more than $6 million.

In an annual ranking of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and released earlier this year, Cambodia ranked among the world's worst, falling from 142 to 143 out of 180 countries. In 2018, Cambodia fell by 10 slots.

Journalist Yeang Sothearin stands with his family in front of the municipal court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 3, 2019.
Journalist Yeang Sothearin stands with his family in front of the municipal court, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 3, 2019.

Hun Sen's ruling party won the election, and has largely silenced the opposition.

The two journalists, with almost two decades of experience between them, were jailed for nearly 10 months. They have been required to report to the police monthly since their release, and the government has confiscated their passports. RFA, like Voice of America, receives funding from the U.S. government.

Hearings in the case ended on Aug. 9 and a verdict was expected on Aug. 30 but was delayed, Radio Free Asia reported. At the time, Cambodian Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said the verdict would be announced Oct. 3.

And that was why on a hot, cloudless Thursday morning, Yeang Socheata was once again at her father's side before journalists.

"I was upset," Yeang Socheata said of her father's prison stay.

As her father and Uon Chhin stood before the judge in a packed Municipal Court hearing, Yeang Socheata said she understands her father is a journalist, and "he likes listening to [the] radio, and listening to the news, every morning and every evening."

Her 11-year-old brother, Yeang Sometta, says he wants to become a journalist like his father, adding that his sister likes to be around reporters. "She wants to open a cake shop where journalists and their friends can eat and hang out," he said, eliciting laughs from his sister and their mother, Lam Chantha, as they all waited outside the hearings in a Lucky fast food store.

New investigation

Upstairs, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Im Vannak said he did not have enough evidence to make a decision in the espionage case against the two reporters. He ordered state prosecutors to reinvestigate the case and present it to a different judge.

FILE - Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, former journalists for U.S. founded Radio Free Asia (RFA), sit inside a police vehicle as they arrive for a bail hearing at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 19, 2018.
FILE - Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, former journalists for U.S. founded Radio Free Asia (RFA), sit inside a police vehicle as they arrive for a bail hearing at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 19, 2018.

The decision drew widespread criticism from press freedom human rights advocates as well as civil society organizations. Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, "A new investigation into what were already spurious charges is unacceptable and will continue to cast a shadow over Cambodia's darkening press freedom situation."

The court's decision to have the journalists reinvestigated "has one purpose and one purpose only: to telegraph to the world that a free media is meaningless to the Cambodian government, and its presence must be actively suppressed," said the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM, whose networks include RFA and Voice of America.

In a statement Friday, the USAGM described the accusations brought against the two journalists in 2017 as "trumped-up espionage charges." The agency called on the Cambodian government to dismiss the case against the journalists "immediately" and to "cease its relentless attacks on freedom of the press."

Yeang Sothearin

When the journalists emerged from court, Yeang Socheata reattached herself to her father. Lam Chantha said, "The longer the case goes, the harder it is for my family, and as my husband didn't do anything wrong; delaying the case means limiting his freedom."

"I'm worried about my children," said Lam Chantha. For months, she has kept a close eye on them, saying, "I don't allow them to go out and play freely, even though nothing may happen. But [the order for more investigation] may mean there is something to worry about."

Her husband loses focus, she said. "He feels pressure, and it's not easy for him."

Cambodian psychologist and family counseling expert Huer Sethul has followed the reporters' case and noticed how close the children, particularly Yeang Socheata, stick to their father.

Staying close to Yeang Sothearin "makes them feel safe, strong, and protected," the psychologist said.

Huer Sethul said the uncertainty created by the unresolved case will take a toll on the reporters' home lives.

"It will more or less impact the family, though we cannot predict how much it is going to affect them. But the most vulnerable ones are the kids," he said.

Uon Chhin

Hours after the hearing, Uon Chhin posted to Facebook a recording of a song he sang. He also sent it to a journalist messenger group that provides emotional support to the RFA reporters.

Kheng Sina, 49, who is married to Uon Chhin, told VOA by telephone on Friday that her husband "tries to be relaxed." She said the couple have a 31-year-old son who has a family, and an unmarried daughter, 28, who has been helping ease the family's financial burdens while tending to her mother's medical needs.

"Sometimes [my husband] sings karaoke at home," said Kheng Sina. "He is very frustrated. I worry about him when I notice he has been very stressed from time to time since he was released, because he lost his job and doesn't have any income."

On Friday, a day after the court issued its order, 37 Cambodian civil society groups released a joint statement condemning the decision, and saying more investigation "violates [the reporters'] right to liberty and to a fair trial guaranteed under international law."

The statement continued: "Yesterday's hearing showed that there is a complete lack of evidence in support of these baseless charges exposing fair trial rights violations and highlighting the trial as a blatant affront to freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia."