PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Aun Pheap, a veteran Cambodian journalist, has been granted refugee status by the United Nations' refugee agency and has fled to the United States, fearing arrest on charges related to reporting prior to the June 2017 local elections.
Aun Pheap and his reporting partner, Canadian Zsombor Peter, both worked for The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper. Authorities used an alleged $6.3 million overdue tax bill to force the newspaper to close its doors. The publishers deny they owed any back taxes to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has steadily been tightening controls on the media and the opposition in advance of the July national election, which it is expected to sweep having dissolved the primary opposition party last year.
Aun Pheap , 54, is now in New York where he has been staying since entering the U.S. from Thailand as a refugee last month. Peter, while no longer based in Cambodia, continues to cover Southeast Asia.
A Ratanakkiri province prosecutor filed charged against the two journalists on August 28, according the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which supports the pair, with "inciting a crime" under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia's penal code. Those articles relate to publicly spoken or published provocation to commit crimes, and direct provocation to commit a felony respectively.
In October, the journalists became aware of the charges which stem from a complaint dated May 22, 2017. In it, they were sued by Rmam Yout, a former commune leader from the opposition Sam Rainsy party and two other villagers. The three alleged the journalists asked them "which party they voted for" in the 2012 nationwide commune elections, according to Aun Pheap. Rmam Yout was the only opposition commune chief elected in the O'yadav district of Ratanakkiri province in that vote.
The plaintiffs sued the journalists for "incitement with bad intention."
Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, urged that the "incitement charges against journalists Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter should be dropped immediately," adding, "We urge Prime Minister Hun Sen to cease and desist his government's campaign of intimidation against independent media, and allow reporters to do their jobs without fear of reprisal."
Aun Pheap denies the charge, saying "I didn't incite people to vote for the opposition party." Speaking with VOA Khmer earlier this week, he added, "This is just an excuse to mistreat us."
Sek Sophorn, the journalists' defense lawyer, said that the case is in now in the hands of the investigating judge. He said his clients didn't commit any offense and were just doing their job--- asking questions.
"It is a part of professional journalist's work," he said.
Keo Pisoth, the court spokesman, said the case is still under investigation and would not comment on it.
Aun Pheap, who had worked for The Cambodia Daily for seven years, believes he and Peter were targeted because of their reporting on illegal logging, timber exports to Vietnam and government corruption in Rattanakiri province, which is on the Vietnam border. "There are some higher people who pushed that lawsuit," he said.
The situation is well documented. For example, a report released in May 2017 by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international non-profit, found Vietnamese companies are violating a Cambodian ban on timber exports on a massive scale with help from complicit government officials and military personnel.
Aun Pheap and Peter won the 2017 Excellence in Investigative Reporting award from the Society of Publishers in Asia in June for their investigative feature "Still Taking a Cut," which exposed military involvement in Cambodia's illegal timber trade.
Aun Pheap left Cambodia on October 22 and two days later was in Hong Kong collecting the award at a gala dinner. He did not return to Cambodia. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) granted him refugee status in January and in March he flew to the United States where he remains after attending a journalism workshop.
Keane Shum, a UNHCR spokesperson, refused to comment on Phaep's case. "We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of individual cases, for reasons of confidentiality and protection," he said in an email to VOA Khmer.
Cambodia's independent press is "in ruins" according to Reporters Without Borders, amid a government crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and the independent media ahead of the country's next general elections in July.
In September, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha, was arrested and Hun Sen's government dissolved the primary opposition party in November.
The 24-year-old Cambodia Daily succumbed to tax bill harassment and published its last edition on September 4 with the headline "Descent into Outright Dictatorship." Days later, Radio Free Asia, which like the Voice of America is based in Washington and operates under the auspices of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, closed its Phnom Penh news bureau due to similar pressure over a tax bill.
Two former RFA reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with espionage in another case in November. They were denied bail last week.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and issued on Wednesday, ranks Cambodia 142nd among 180 countries that "seems dangerously inclined to take the same path as China after closing dozens of independent media outlets and plunging ten places, one of the biggest falls in the region."
In September, a Chinese network launched NICE TV in Cambodia to offer entertainment and as Huy Vannak, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior told VOA, "to inform the people about how to enforce the better public service."