Police in Ratanakkiri province on Friday arrested six journalists who were following a truck suspected of heading to Vietnam with a load of illegally logged timber for a local military police officer, though the reporters and police gave different accounts.
Chhin Mao, a reporter for BTV, said on Sunday that he was in a car with five other journalists following the truck through O’yadaw district when local police stopped them and took them to the Lumchor commune police station without explanation.
Once at the station, Mr. Mao said, “we gave them our media passes, but they refused to look at them. They asked for our identity cards, but when we gave them the cards they refused to look at them. Then they asked for a permission letter from the provincial governor, Thorng Savun.”
They did not have a permission letter for carrying out their reporting, which by law they do not require, and were allowed to leave an hour-and-a-half later.
Mr. Mao said that when they were initially stopped they saw the truck they had been following pull into a nearby house. But when the journalists returned to the house immediately after their release, the truck was no longer there, he said.
He said they were investigating reports from local villagers that about 30 trucks were moving illegally logged timber into Vietnam through the Phnom Krahorm border checkpoint on a nightly basis for a local military police officer named Phat Kimhour.
“I think the authorities stopped us because they wanted to give the truck a chance to escape,” he said.
Sleman Hasan, the commune police chief who stopped the journalists, declined to comment.
The district police chief, Mao Sun, confirmed that the group was arrested. But he said it was because they were parked suspiciously outside a military police base and because a villager, whom he refused to identify, had called authorities about their presence.
“A villager reported to our authorities that a car was parked in the middle of the road and my police officers brought them to the station to be questioned. But we released them after we found out they were journalists,” he said. “We did not arrest the journalists to let the truck escape like they claim.”
Provincial military police commander Kim Raksmey confirmed that Mr. Kimhour was a local military police officer. He said Mr. Sun had told him that Mr. Kimhour was transporting timber to Vietnam, but an internal investigation had proved him to be innocent.
“We investigated and found that two or three people are involved in the crime and I have reported it to National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha to ask for a decision on whether to arrest them,” he said.
General Sokha was put in command of a task force charged with rooting out eastern Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging trade in January last year and immediately put a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam. However, Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends indicate that millions of dollars worth of timber have continued to make it across the border every month.