Journalists Uon Chhin, right, and Yeang Sothearin with his children enter the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 9, 2019. The two Cambodian journalists were on trial on espionage charges rights groups call a flagrant attack on press freedom.
Journalists Uon Chhin, right, and Yeang Sothearin with his children enter the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 9, 2019. The two Cambodian journalists were on trial on espionage charges rights groups call a flagrant attack on press freedom.

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - A verdict has been delayed in the espionage case against two Cambodian journalists who worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia.

Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are accused of undermining national security by supplying information to a foreign state, an act punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The two men and others were sitting inside the courtroom awaiting the verdict Friday morning when a court officer entered and announced the delay. The officer read a statement saying the judge who was set to announce the verdict was busy because of a meeting in the justice ministry. The officer said the new date for the verdict would be announced later.

Sothearin said he was keen to know the verdict so he could prepare for his future. 

“The more postponement of the verdict, the more of my freedom I’ve lost,” he told reporters outside court after the delay was announced.

Journalist Yeang Sothearin, second from right, speaks to reporters as he and co-accused Uon Chhin leave municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 26, 2019.

Rights groups object

Rights groups consider the espionage case against the two journalists a clear attack on freedom of the press.

“As long as Cambodia treats journalists like criminals, its reputation as a failed democracy will remain,” Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said last month.

The two were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. The crackdown, which included a court-ordered dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition party, was generally seen as an effort to ensure victory for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election.

Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades, but in recent years has tightened his grip as his political opponents began to pose a bigger threat at the polls.

The case against them

The two defendants are accused of sending secret information to Radio Free Asia after it closed its office in Cambodia. They acknowledged sending news to their former employer but said it involved openly available information.

Radio Free Asia closed its Phnom Penh office, citing “unprecedented” government intimidation of the media. By the end of 2017, Cambodia’s government had closed more than two dozen local radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast RFA’s programs. The English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily also was forced to close, muting almost all independent media inside the country.

Police initially said Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for Radio Free Asia and were charged with espionage. They testified that they had been building a karaoke studio to earn some income since their employment with Radio Free Asia had ended.

They are free on bail, but their release is conditional on visiting the police station each month and their passports were confiscated, which they said makes it difficult to find jobs.

RFA is funded by an independent U.S. government agency and says its mission is “to provide accurate and timely news and information to Asian countries whose governments prohibit access to a free press.” Its programs are aired by radio and television and carried online.