The Pursat Provincial Court has charged three journalists with extortion for allegedly demanding money from a local wood trader with ties to timber baron Try Pheap, according to officials.
The boss of one of the three reporters, however, said they were arrested after refusing a bribe the trader offered them so that they would not report on him and his alleged contraband.
Deputy court prosecutor Long Cheap said on Sunday that the trio was charged on Friday by Investigating Judge Keth Socheat. He declined to discuss the case further, however, and Judge Socheat could not be reached for comment.
Chan Sokha, the military police chief in Phnom Kravanh district, said the three men were arrested on Thursday after Keo Sok Heng complained that they stopped his truck that day to demand a bribe. Mr. Sokha claimed he did not know what the bribe was asked for or how much it was, but identified Mr. Sok Heng as an employee of MDS, a company owned by Mr. Pheap.
He said the journalists worked for the Ka Pit newspaper, CPN TV and MSJ TV and were found with $320 on them.
Mr. Sokha said the arrests were made on orders from provincial military police chief Ouk Samon, but Mr. Samon said he was not aware of any journalists being arrested recently and hung up on a reporter.
District governor Sau Sahong said he was told by Mr. Sokha, the district military police chief, that the journalists were extorting Mr. Sok Heng over the luxury-grade timber he was hauling. “The district military police arrested the journalists because they extorted $300 from the truck driver,” he said.
Mr. Pheap, who owns MDS, a firm that controls two economic land concessions in Pursat, has been repeatedly accused of using his concessions across Cambodia to run one of the largest timber trafficking operations in the country.
A 2012 report by the NGO Fauna & Flora, which was never officially released, accused the two MDS concessions of being used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars worth of luxury-grade wood from protected forest outside of a planned dam reservoir that the company was given permission to clear. U.S. satellite data published by the University of Maryland show significant forest loss taking place around the MDS concessions and reservoir—and a special economic zone in the province also owned by Mr. Pheap—as recently as 2014, the latest year for which data is available.
Company representatives for Mr. Pheap, who serves as an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, have consistently denied the allegations of illegal logging.
Kheang Sochivoan, who manages MDS’s operations in Pursat, declined to discuss the recent arrests.
“I am not involved in the arrest of the journalists,” he said on Sunday before hanging up.
The managing director of MSJ TV, Meng Sophoan, said his reporter, Sin Sophoan, had told him that the three journalists had taken a picture of Mr. Sok Heng’s timber-loaded truck. He said Mr. Sok Heng invited the three to lunch, where he asked them not to report what they had seen.
“Keo Sok Heng left $300 on the table for the journalists, but they did not take the money. The authorities then arrested the three journalists after they walked out of the restaurant,” he said.
“I have contacted the provincial governor to ask him to intervene because my reporter did not do what he is accused of doing by the timber trader, and the governor promised to help.”
Pursat provincial governor Mao Thanin denied that he was helping. “As provincial governor, I cannot help release those journalists because the case has already reached the hands of the court, so we should let the court follow the law,” he said.