PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The espionage trial of two Cambodian journalists who formerly worked for a U.S. government-funded radio station began Friday, almost two years after their arrests.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin appeared at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to defend themselves against the charge that they had undermined national security by supplying information to a foreign state, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Rights groups have characterized their case as a flagrant attack on press freedom.
The pair, who had already left their jobs with Radio Free Asia, were arrested in November 2017 during a crackdown on the media and political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, ahead of the July 2018 general election. Radio Free Asia had closed its Phnom Penh bureau in September 2017, citing government intimidation of the media, which it said had reached an “unprecedented level.”
By the end of 2017, the government had closed more than two dozen radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast Radio Free Asia’s programs. The English-language The Cambodia Daily newspaper also was forced to shut down, leaving almost all critical voices inside the country hushed.
Radio Free Asia 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 transmitted by radio and television and also carried online.
The former journalists in interviews this week with The Associated Press insisted they have done nothing wrong and hoped the court would drop both the charges against them. Police in March 2018 added a charge of producing pornography, which is punishable by up to a year in jail.
“If the court is independent and the trial is conducted according to the law, we do hope that we will be freed because we have done nothing wrong according to the charges,” Yeang Sothearin said in a phone interview.
“We hope that we will get a good result from the Friday trial and that we will be freed,” Uon Chhin added.
Rohit Mohajan, a spokesman for Radio Free Asia, said in an email that the two face “unsubstantiated charges, which never should have been brought forward in the first place.”
“The Phnom Penh Court Municipal Court can rectify this unnecessary and troubling situation by dismissing the case and all charges against them without delay,” he said.
Police initially said the two had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA — which they deny — and charged with espionage.
The two were released on bail a month after the 2018 election, which was swept by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party in a vote widely seen as neither fair nor credible because the pro-government courts had dissolved the main opposition party in November 2017.
The conditions for granting release on bail included monthly police station visits and confiscation of their passports.
Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985 and has held a tight grip on power since ousting a co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup, has a record of cracking down harshly when facing a serious challenge, then effecting reconciliation when he no longer feels threatened.
The pattern has generally kept human rights groups and Western governments off balance and moderates their criticism. However, the 2017 crackdown and failure to hold a free and fair election sparked outrage in Western nations, which began to enact political and economic sanctions against Hun Sen’s government as relations failed to rebound.
“The fabricated case against the ex-RFA journalists is intended as a strike against media that dares to criticize the Cambodian government,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said this week. “Chhin and Sothearin should never have had to face these bogus espionage charges, and all judicial restrictions on them should be lifted.”