Cambodian Television Network journalist Soy Sopheap broadcast two reports on the land dispute between Keat Kolney and Ratanakkiri province minority villagers over 450 hectares in O’Yadaw district the week of Aug 13, in which he concluded that Keat Kolney bought the land legally and villagers were “incited” to file lawsuits against her.
But his Aug 14 and Aug 17 reports were greeted with strong criticism by legal rights NGOs, who alleged that his findings were based on inaccurate and incomplete reporting.
Soy Sopheap stood by his reports Aug 19, saying that he had criticized Keat Kolney in previous reporting. “I stand by my conclusion, which is based on true information I got,” he said. “I went there independently.”
On his field trip to Ratanakkiri province, he said he had tried to locate six plaintiffs from Kong Yu village, but could not find them. “Most of the Jarai people did not complain,” he said. “Some NGOs created disorder.”
The Community Legal Education Center and Legal Aid of Cambodia, which are representing 12 Jarai ethnic minority villagers in the legal battle, said that Soy Sopheap had not tried to contact them and urged him in an Aug 15 letter and an Aug 16 press statement to dig into all sides of the story.
CLEC Program Manager Huon Chundy said Aug 19 that villagers began to fight for the land in 2004, two years before the CLEC and LAC’s attorneys even became involved.
“It’s baseless that they accuse us of incitement,” he said.
In two January lawsuits, villagers claimed that Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon, fraudulently backdated sale contracts and gave “reward” money to local officials for facilitating the land deal. In late June, Keat Kolney, who now runs a rubber plantation on the contested land, filed a lawsuit of her own, accusing the villagers of fraud and defamation and their advisers of incitement, according to the CLEC. None of those lawsuits has yet been resolved.
In their Aug 15 letter, CLEC and LAC said that Soy Sopheap had only spoken with villagers affiliated with the former chief of Kong Yu village, who they maintain helped execute the fraudulent land deal. They also said that many villagers had been pressured and remain fearful to speak the truth.
CLEC and LAC also invited Soy Sopheap to come with them to Ratanakkiri province to fill out his reporting. However CTN has so far declined that invitation, Huon Chundy said.
To this, Soy Sopheap replied that he preferred to work independently.
“No one can order me to do a report,” Soy Sopheap said.
His goal, he said, has been to find out what was really going on in the long-running dispute. “I hope justice will be found through the court,” he said.
Kek Galabru, president of rights group Licadho, said she also believed CTN’s reports were biased. “I was surprised CTN broadcast only one side. Why not interview also the lawyers?” she said. “You have to be balanced.”
Moreover, she, like CLEC and LAC, maintains that the 450 hec-tares in question were communally owned by ethnic minority Jarai, which would make it illegal to sell the land. “The buyer should know the land cannot be sold,” she said.
Keat Kolney’s lawyer Chhe Vibol on Aug 19 declined to comment on Soy Sopheap’s broadcasts, saying he had not seen them.