A reporter for leading Khmer-language newspaper Koh Santepheap has been jailed ahead of trial by the Siem Reap Provincial Court over allegations he extorted money from a wood manufacturing company he believed was linked to illegal logging, officials said on Friday.
Reporter Sim Samnang was arrested by police on Tuesday and officially charged with extortion on Thursday, said provincial court Prosecutor Ty Sovannthal.
“The court decided to detain the Koh Santepheap reporter in prison on extortion charges,” Mr Sovannthal said on Friday, declining to give any other details about the case.
The jailing of Mr Samnang marks the third journalist from Koh Santepheap to face the Siem Reap court in the last two weeks. Two other reporters from the paper have been questioned following complaints of publishing defamatory stories and spreading disinformation lodged by police in the province and neighboring Oddar Meanchey.
Siem Reap minor crimes police chief Phing Chendareth said that Mr Samnang is alleged to have demanded money from a furniture-making business in Siem Reap province. The reporter allegedly threatened that he would bring the activities of the business, which he believed was using illegally felled timber to make furniture, to the attention of authorities if the owner didn’t pay him $150.
“He later reduced the amount of money, demanding a smaller amount. He threatened the owner of the wood factory that if he didn’t give him money, he would bring the court prosecutor to confiscate their equipment,” Mr Chendareth said.
Mr Chendareth said the factory was not involved in the illegal logging trade, which the government has recently launched a new offensive against, claiming that it only sold processed furniture and was, therefore, not involved in any logging.
The police chief also said that many journalists in Siem Reap are involved in extorting money from wood-processing factories in return for not writing stories about their wood supplies. Police are investigating other journalists, he said.
Accepting money for writing positive stories about business and political figures is a long-standing means of earning money for poorly-paid local reporters, as is demanding or accepting payment to not write stories that are critical of a person or practice whether it be legal or illegal.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said on Friday the latest round of court actions against reporters would have a chilling effect on journalists, who will likely avoid writing stories of substance for fear of being accused of an offense and then thrown in jail.
“They won’t write the articles that might cause them to be in danger, such as the articles about illegal logging, land grabbing and other news that is very crucial for society,” Mr Chhean Nariddh said.
Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said it was common among some local journalists to seek payments from individuals who were the subjects of stories and that he wondered why Mr Samnang had been targeted for arrest and prosecuted over such an allegation.
Such a case of extortion is a minor crime, Mr Samithy said, adding that the CCJ was considering writing a letter to the court seeking Mr Samnang’s release on bail.
Mr Samithy also said that it was still to be determined whether the reporter had “done wrong or not.”
Thong Uy Pang, publisher of Koh Santepheap, said that Mr Samnang’s arrest was not an issue of journalism ethics and, therefore, fell outside his area of responsibility.
“If there is a problem concerning an article, I will be fully responsible. But if it is not [involved with an article], I won’t be responsible,” he said.
There are currently two other Cambodian journalists serving prison terms: Hang Chakra and Ros Sokhet, who were found guilty of spreading so-called