Journalists Deny Extortion Charge as Ministry Closes Investigation

A group of seven local journalists denied accusations of extortion as the Information Ministry ended an investigation on Wednesday into a complaint that timber-trafficking villagers in Ratanakkiri province had destroyed one of their cars.

Villagers had accused the group of threatening to expose their timber trade unless they gave a cut of their take to Sok Sovan, the director of publishing company Kampuchea Information.

Mr. Sovan, however, who was a part of the group, again denied the accusation on Thursday and said he had received reports of timber trading from other online journalists who had traveled to Veun Sai district the previous week.

“We just wanted to see clearly whether people living in the area were dealing timber like the report from the group of journalists said,” Mr. Sovan said.

Ouk Kimseng, undersecretary of state for the Information Ministry, said that he had returned on Wednesday night from Koh Peak commune, where the February 1 incident occurred, after interviewing locals there with 11 other ministry employees.

“We went to the area and asked people there. They told us they didn’t know about the incident involving the destruction of the journalists’ car,” Mr. Kimseng said.

“But they said that the seven journalists always came to the area and checked the people’s houses from door to door to find hidden wood.”

He added that he still had to resolve the opposing accounts and prepare a report for the Information Minister, Khieu Kanharith.

The residents of the commune—a sparsely populated stretch of land across the Se-

san river from Virachey National Park—were logging illegally and making a small trade of forest products, Mr. Kimseng said.

“We saw processed wood in the people’s houses,” he said. “But it is not a big timber business. They have always made money from forest products through family businesses.”

Sovan Bunthai, a community coordinator for rights group Licadho in Ratanakkiri, said on Thursday the practice of local journalists taking photographs of wood and demanding money was common in the province.

Mr. Bunthai said he had tried to work for local media, only to find that his publisher demanded $25 from him every three months to renew his media pass.

“My publisher was not happy when I didn’t have money to give him,” he said.

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