One year ago today, Hang Serei Odom, a journalist in Ratanakkiri province, received a fateful phone call. After telling his wife he was going to meet a military police officer, he bid her goodnight. He left his house in Banlung City at about 7 p.m. and never returned.
Two days later, the body of the journalist was found stuffed in the trunk of his Toyota Camry, which was abandoned in a cashew plantation in O’Chum district. His head and face had been hacked open with an ax.
Before his disappearance, the journalist had written for the Virakchun Khmer Daily connecting local military police officials to the illegal logging trade.
The final article he wrote criticized a military police officer, who was the son of the provincial military police chief, claiming that he had extorted money from truck drivers transporting illegally logged luxury wood, Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said Sunday.
An Bunheng, a military police captain, and his wife Sim Vy, were arrested the same week that Hang Serei Odom’s body was found. A pair of the victim’s shoes were found in a restaurant that the couple own and a blanket with what was initially thought to have blood on it was found inside their house. Last month, the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court cleared the two of all charges and released them, citing a lack of evidence linking them to the brutal murder.
“[An Bunheng] telephoned my husband to meet him at his house and then my husband disappeared,” Im Chanthy, the slain journalist’s widow, said Sunday.
Ms. Chanthy is convinced that the military police officer killed her husband.
Adhoc’s Mr. Thy, who has been closely monitoring the case, criticized the court for not investigating the case properly.
“More than one person was responsible for this,” Mr. Thy said. “I think it is a bad model for other cases and it could cause a threatening environment for other reporters.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the Ratanakkiri court’s decision was a worrying trend of “impunity in media murders.”
Hang Serei Odom is the 11th journalist to be murdered in Cambodia since 1994. None of the 11 cases have ever led to a prosecution.
“The failure to find and convict the killers of journalist Hang Serei Odom one year after his murder speaks to the low priority Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government places on protecting the press,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said Sunday in an email.
“Cambodia’s courts are notorious for their political pliability and it’s notable that one of the acquitted suspects was a military police officer,” Mr. Crispin said.
Benjamin Ismail, Head of Asia-Pacific for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said that the latest murder reinforced existing impunity.
“It sends a message to all professionals in the media who want to cover sensitive issues or denounce sensitive information, it tells them that they can be threatened, attacked and killed, and nobody will react,” Mr. Ismail said.
“This would be the main reason for self-censorship in the country, especially for young journalists.”