About 50 journalists who work in provinces across the country gathered at the Information Ministry headquarters in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to protest the arrest of four journalists in Ratanakkiri province for alleged extortion last week.
The journalists submitted a complaint to Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, asking him to intervene with Ratanakkiri provincial authorities on behalf of the reporters, who the complaint says were “harassed” and had their “rights stifled.”
The four reporters were arrested by provincial military police last Wednesday and charged on Friday with extortion after the driver of a wood-laden van accused them of asking him for money, according to Ratanakkiri Provincial Court prosecutor spokesman Chea Pich.
Journalists in provinces that border Vietnam are often accused of requesting bribes from wood smugglers to not expose their operations, while provincial military police officials have been implicated in illegal logging schemes that send millions of dollars worth of illicit timber to Vietnam each month.
Ratanakkiri provincial military police commander Kim Raksmey said on Tuesday that the driver had filed a complaint alleging a long history of extortion from one of the journalists.
“We arrested them because the plaintiff claimed one of the four had been taking money from him for five years,” Mr. Raksmey said, adding that none of the reporters had media identification cards.
Mr. Kanharith told the assembled reporters on Tuesday that he would speak with the justice minister, but otherwise his hands were tied.
“What I can do now is submit a request to the justice minister to inspect the case,” he said, adding that he may have been able to secure the reporters’ release before they were sent to court, but now was unable to do so.
The reporters also asked the minister to improve the situation for journalists in Ratanakkiri, who have faced harassment from local authorities. A case last month saw six journalists briefly detained after local police demanded a letter of permission from the provincial governor, which journalists are not legally required to have.
“If you only go to cover the news, there is no need to ask for permission,” Mr. Kanharith told the reporters on Tuesday.
Chea Ly Heang, publisher of Reaksmey Kon Khmer, who often works in Ratanakkiri and attended the meeting on Tuesday, noted that authorities rarely arrested the owners of illegal timber.
“I have been in Ratanakkiri since April, and the authorities have seized more than 1,000 pieces of wood,” Mr. Ly Heang said. “But they never take action against those who own the wood.”
Mr. Ly Heang’s Facebook profile shows he has been posting photographs of timber logging since at least December 2015.
He said authorities were attempting to intimidate reporters.
“They accused them so that we will worry in the future about facing arrest for our reporting.”
Pa Nguon Teang, head of Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said journalists in border provinces often negotiated for a cut of the illicit timber smugglers’ profit in exchange for not publishing stories.
“In general, I’ve observed reporters using their position to negotiate with businesspeople who are involved in crime, in order to do business with them.”