Police investigating the murder of a journalist whose battered body was discovered in Ratanakkiri province on Tuesday have unearthed key clues to who may have carried out the killing, an official said yesterday.
Hang Serei Odom, 42-who had written exposes on the involvement of powerful people in forest crimes-is the first journalist to have been murdered in Cambodia for four years.
His death has reignited concerns over the dangers faced by local reporters – 10 of whom have been killed since 1993, though none of the cases have ever been solved.
Hang Serei Odom’s bludgeoned body was found stuffed into the trunk of his car, about 3 km away from his home in Banlung City.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Police Chief Ray Rai said the investigation had already yielded leads from the reporter’s mobile phone and belongings, which were left in the car. He said police had identified a Metphone mobile phone number that had been used to call the victim at about the time he left his home for the last time on Sunday evening, telling his wife he was going to meet someone named “Mr. Heng.”
“We called the [phone] company office in the province to check the identity of that caller,” Mr. Rai said. “We have some information that could lead to the disclosure of the identity of some of the perpetrators.”
He added that he had also asked the Interior Ministry to help identify three other mobile phone numbers that had called, or been called from, the victim’s phone shortly before his death.
“The planned murder of the journalist had a revenge motive,” Mr. Rai said, declining to say whether he thought Hang Serei Odom’s murder was retribution for his work writing about forest crimes in the northeastern province, where illegal logging and land grabbing is endemic.
Hang Serei Odom had been reporting for the Virakchun Khmer Daily newspaper for four months and had written stories linking well-connected people in the province to illegal logging and timber smuggling, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Rin Ratanak said.
Hang Serei Odom was professional in his conduct as a journalist and he was not involved in using evidence gathered about forest crimes to blackmail the perpetrators-as reporters in remote provinces have been known to do, Mr. Ratanak said.
“I haven’t received any information that he extorted or took bribes for not exposing people,” he said.
Despite 10 murders of journalists being recorded in Cambodia since 1993, no one has been prosecuted for any of these killings. Asked yesterday why this was, Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, declined to comment.
“Sadly, experience suggests that this reporter will have died in vain,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the pressure group Human Rights Watch, said in an email.
“[T]he authorities will throw up their hands and not investigate, and the destruction of Cambodia’s forests will continue unabated.”
In a joint statement issued yesterday, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said that even one such killing could lead to self-censorship by reporters out of fear.
“We call for a thorough investigation into the case to send a signal that the killing of journalists will not be tolerated,” the statement quoted SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran as saying.
The Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) also issued a statement condemning Hang Serei Odom’s murder and saying it threatens press freedom, free speech and democracy in Cambodia.
“CCJ deems this murder to be a serious threat to the spirit of working professional journalists and it intentionally deters reporters from performing their job,” it said.
And highlighting the frequency with which intimidation is used against journalists, the CCJ also issued a separate statement about a recent threat made to another local reporter.
Len Makara-who works for the Cambodia Today Newspaper-was subjected to threats last week after he wrote an article exposing a local environmental and wildlife protection organization for setting up a checkpoint to extort money from forest criminals in Kampot province, the statement said.
Hang Serei Odom’s wife, Im Chanthy, said that her husband was cremated yesterday at a pagoda near his home in Banlung City.
She said her husband had never mentioned receiving threats against his life for his work.
“He was not in an argument and did not receive death threats before he was killed,” Ms. Chanthy said.