When Kong Soki was called for questioning on Monday at the Kompong Chhnang provincial police headquarters, he was the seventh journalist to fall afoul of the law for writing stories alleging that a provincial court official had benefitted from the trade in illegally logged luxury wood.
He was also the seventh journalist to face a court investigation led by the same court official whom the reporters had made the allegations against.
Police questioned Mr. Soki—who writes for local newspaper Meatophoum—based on a complaint filed by provincial court prosecutor Penh Vibol.
The prosecutor has accused Mr. Soki of defamation for allegedly distributing an anonymous leaflet in Kompong Chhnang City criticizing the prosecutor’s professional character, a police official said Thursday.
Copies of the offending letter were strewn outside the courthouse late last month, accusing the prosecutor of conspiring with businessmen to “extort blood from innocent people,” the police officer said.
Mr. Soki, who denies writing or distributing the offending leaflets, is only the latest journalist facing prosecution by Mr. Vibol.
“Mr. Vibol is taking revenge with me because my newspaper published an article which criticized him,” Mr. Soki claimed on Thursday.
In July, Mr. Vibol issued arrest warrants for six other journalists.
The arrest warrants follow a year after the court charged the six with allegedly extorting money from two ox cart drivers whom the reporters allegedly discovered transporting two tons of illegally cut rosewood in 2010.
However, in the same month as the issuing of the six warrants, the reporters had written articles alleging that an amount of rosewood confiscated by the court had disappeared while under the care of the prosecutor, Mr. Vibol, said Yong Sokha, one of the accused reporters who works for local newspaper Today.
“I think that the accusation from the provincial prosecutor is unfair for all of us because we have never committed any wrongdoing,” Mr. Sokha said Thursday.
Though arrest warrants have been issued, none of the six reporters has yet been detained, and all were at work at their respective newspapers on Thursday, Mr. Sokha added.
Contacted on Friday, Mr. Vibol said that he was well within his rights to prosecute the journalists who had criticized him in their articles, and who had long accused court officials of involvement in the trade in illegal rosewood logging.
Though the journalists may have criticized him, Mr. Vibol said the criminal case against the journalist, and the issuing of arrest warrants, was not related to the allegations they had published in their papers.
“The court is not engaged in revenge against the journalists. It is a real case,” Mr. Vibol said, adding that he charged a total of eight journalists based on a police report, with extorting $300 from two rosewood smugglers. However, only six of the journalists’ identities are known, he said.
“If we did not have testimony from the victims, we would not have evidence to accuse them,” he said, denying that his involvement in the prosecution of the journalists was a conflict of interest.
Legal experts, however, said the prosecutor should recuse himself from the case, which presents an obvious conflict of interest.
“It is incompatible. In this case, the defense lawyer can file a motion to remove the prosecutor from the case,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project.
But that might not happen, he said.
“Sometimes, the lawyer, especially private lawyers, don’t want to have conflict with the magistrate, so that is a problem with the prosecutor [filing the complaints].”
Pen Samitthy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said whatever truth there is to the accusations against the reporters, Mr. Vibol should not be handling the case as it would be a conflict of interest.
“He should not be managing his own personal cases,” Mr. Samitthy said.
While rights groups say journalists who report on the controversial illegal logging trade are often targeted for exposing links between the lucrative logging trade and the authorities, unethical reporters from local newspapers have been long known to stop trucks transporting luxury timber, attempting to extort money in exchange for not writing a story.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said that poorly trained and low paid reporters in the provinces have led to such unethical practices.
The cases of the seven journalists facing arrest is indicative of a larger problem, in which reporters have been targeted for writing sensitive stories.
“Year 2012 was the worst year because a journalist was killed and many stations were targeted,” he said.
Kompong Chhnang provincial deputy police chief Prak Vuthy said the six journalists will be arrested.
“We will arrest the six people since the court warrant was issued and we are now still looking for them,” he said.
Police have not investigated any of the allegations published by the reporters, Mr. Vuthy said.
“We have no plans to open an investigation,” he added.
“Mr. Vibol…is the complainant at this time.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)