A 49-year-old journalist reportedly investigating illegal logging in Kratie province was shot dead early Sunday morning. Within hours, police arrested three men—a commune police chief, a military police officer and a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soldier—for the murder, officials said.
Taing Try, who contributed to several local newspapers, was shot in the forehead at about 1 a.m. in Snuol district’s Khsoem commune after he and five other journalists went to investigate reports of illegal logging, according to Sok Sovann, president of the Khmer Journalist for Democracy Association, of which the slain reporter was a member.
Sa Piseth, editor of the Niseth Khmer newspaper, had been driving with the victim but walked to a farm to find help when their Toyota Camry became stuck on a dirt road, he said.
“My colleague Taing Try was shot with a single bullet in his head and died beside his Camry car,” said Mr. Piseth, who returned to the car to find his friend lying on the road.
About 200 meters down the road lay an overturned Lexus LX470 SUV without license plates, whose driver, police said, flipped the car while attempting to flee the scene.
According to deputy Kratie provincial police chief Oum Phy, the SUV belonged to Ben Hieng, 31, chief of Sre Chhouk commune police in Mondolkiri province’s Keo Seima district. The other two occupants had been Khim Pheakdey, 27, a Phnom Penh military police officer, and the suspected gunman, La Narong, 32, an RCAF soldier in Mondolkiri.
“Provincial police arrested all three one by one today and now all of them have been sent to the Kratie provincial police station and will be sent to the court,” Mr. Phy said.
He said the men all confessed to taking part in the murder during questioning, but that their motives were still being investigated.
According to the victim’s colleagues, the six reporters paired off in three cars to investigate a warehouse owned by Chhun Phoeun, the brother of deputy Snuol district military police chief Chhun Khoeun, when they heard that oxcarts had been transporting luxury wood there under the cover of darkness.
But when the reporters arrived at the warehouse, one of them received a phone call from Mr. Khoeun ordering them to return home and claiming the “goods” belonged to him, according to Mr. Piseth and others in the group.
Rights groups and media watchdogs were quick to condemn Taing Try’s murder Sunday, which follows the 2012 slaying of Virakchun Khmer newspaper reporter Hang Serei Oudom in Rattanakiri province, who was also investigating timber smuggling, and environmental activist Chut Wutty, who was shot dead the same year in Koh Kong province.
“This cold-blooded killing shows again just how dangerous Cambodia is for journalists, especially those who investigate wrongdoing about the country’s land and forests,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“The police have to conduct a professional and impartial investigation of his murder, and the government must commit to end the impunity that attackers of news reporters far too often enjoy.”
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance called for prosecution of those responsible.
“[We] call on local authorities to take swift action to bring Mr. Tri’s [sic] killers to justice and to end the cycle of impunity for those who perpetuate violence against journalists in Cambodia,” a joint statement said.
There have been a number of threats in recent months directed at reporters covering illegal logging. In April, the Club of Cambodian Journalists issued a statement expressing concern that three journalists in Preah Vihear, Pursat and Kompong Cham provinces were harassed. And in June, a reporter from the Kapit local newspaper in Pursat alleged that an RCAF soldier threatened to kill him over stories linking him to illegal rosewood smuggling.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said there are many freelance reporters based in the provinces who investigate illegal activity and often work independently, which can leave them vulnerable.
Mr. Nariddh said that while some reporters in the provinces, often unsalaried, are tempted to betray their journalistic ethics and profit from the information they dig up, journalists who refuse to be bought off run the real risk of being framed—or attacked—when they uncover a crime.
Taing Try was arrested for extortion in 2010 and called to the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court last month over the four-year-old allegations. He consistently maintained that he was arrested solely because he had witnessed illegal timber smuggling in the province.
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