Cambodia's crackdown on critical news media has taken a sordid turn with the publication of pictures purportedly showing a former Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporter filming and participating in pornographic videos.
The photos were posted last weekend on the websites of two pro-government news outlets, whose editors say the images were provided to them by police.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government has already dissolved the country’s main opposition, warned Thursday that journalism that threatens the government will be targeted. He did not address the release of the compromising images.
"The royal government of Cambodia will not allow the use of freedom in anarchic and illegal means to stage a color revolution to topple the legitimate royal government," he said, invoking an accusation that is now routinely deployed against any government critic.
Fresh News, which posted the lewd images first, said an anonymous police official had unearthed the material during a raid last week on an allegedly unlicensed karaoke video filming studio set up by former RFA reporter Uon Chhin.
He and former colleague Yeang Sothearin, who also goes by the pen name Yeang Socheameta, have been in custody, accused of continuing to work for RFA after the U.S. government-funded broadcaster shut down its offices in early September citing the government's "relentless crackdown on independent voices."
The two were charged with espionage under a vaguely defined law that criminalizes passing on information that could be deemed harmful to national security to a foreign state. If found guilty they could be sentenced to up to 15 years.
RFA responds to allegations
RFA spokesperson Rohit Mahajan said in an emailed statement that the broadcaster had not had a relationship, contractual or otherwise, with the two reporters since the Phnom Penh office was shut on Sept. 12. VOA has been unable to contact Uon Chhin for a comment on the photos while he is in custody.
The photos emerged soon after the arrests. Pro-government website Swift News published uncensored versions of the photographs, though later removed them from the website. But they remain in its Facebook instant news feed.
Fresh News still has pixilated versions of the photos on its site. CEO and founder Lim Cheavutha defended his decision to publish the photos saying his decision to blur the character’s genitalia showed he followed an ethical code.
"As the news outlet, I get information from the government and police and I published it by confirming from the police. It is not related to the false report but it is just what the police gave [me]," he said.
Journalists sign petition
At least 80 local journalists have thumb-printed a petition calling for the release of Sothearin, who had worked as a news editor and office coordinator, and Chhin — a widely respected and popular veteran video journalist.
The Cambodian Club of Journalists (CCJ) and the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia (UJFC) both have refrained from making public statements in defense of the two reporters.
As head of the UJFC, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and the head of news at television network CTN, Huy Vannak is in a unique position to view these events.
Vannak, who said he also informally advises Swift News and Fresh News on content strategy, stressed he was trying to stay neutral by providing legal support rather than opinions, but recalled some impressions of his former student Uon Chhin when pressed repeatedly.
"He spoke less. He was very soft but like I said, before and now is different. Like you are confused about Pol Pot," he said, pointing out that the former Khmer Rouge leader often came across as a smiling and caring person, even as his regime implemented policies blamed for the deaths of almost 2 million people during the late 1970s. "It is very hard for me to say and to judge personality," Vannak said.
Handling leaked news
Concerning the ethics of posting the naked photos, Vannak said he did not judge personally but behind closed doors had told those involved what was right and what was wrong.
"I explained to them leaked news is a tactic but as a journalist you would consider with a high morals what story you should run and then they decided to drop their decision."
He could not provide clear guidelines as head of the UJFC to journalists about how they could avoid committing "espionage" under the vaguely worded law, but said citizens needed to know "the value and frame of your rights" and exercise awareness.
"I tried to be very clear that if you consider, they are journalists and then what grounds to defend them because RFA denied that they [are] no longer working for RFA — then who they going to work for?" said Vannak, who himself used to work for RFA.
Sothearin’s uncle-in-law, Lim Sim, said his nephew had stopped working for RFA before the arrest and had merely gone to the guesthouse where Chhin was apprehended to act as a witness - resulting in his own arrest.
"I don’t understand the case," he said.
Editor's note: Radio Free Asia is funded by a grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America.