Journalists and environmental activists in Cambodia are criticizing authorities’ filing of charges against three reporters accused of taking bribes to cover up illegal logging in a northern province, saying the loggers themselves should also be charged.
Mom Vibal, 44, Tin Try, 29, and Tin Sitha, 27 — reporters for online and television news outlets in Preah Vihear province — were taken into custody on Nov. 23 and charged with extortion following a lawsuit filed by Vietnamese logging company PNT.
The three are accused of demanding that U.S.$4,000 be paid to a group of four, including the three now under arrest, in exchange for blocking information on illegal purchases of timber by PNT, according to local media accounts.
Company representatives then offered the group U.S.$2,000 and invited the journalists to a meeting where they were taken into custody by provincial police, media reports said. The name of the fourth person suspected of involvement in the extortion attempt was not reported.
Speaking to RFA, Tin Chamroeun — a brother-in-law of Tin Try and Tin Sitha — said that they had not committed the alleged crimes, and that they had never received the money offered to them in bribes.
“The illegal trader was freed, but the journalists were put in jail,” he said. “I want to see equal justice granted by the court.”
Attempt to deter reporting?
Local journalists called the group’s arrest an attempt to deter other journalists from looking into the illegal logging trade.
“Some journalists are afraid of being arrested if they report on illegal logging,” said Try Sophal, a reporter for Preah Vihear’s Hang Meas TV.
The fact that the reporters were taken into custody while the timber traders escaped charges shows that Cambodia’s laws are unequally applied, he added.
Srey Thai, a member of Preah Vihear’s Prey Lang Forest protection network, said that provincial authorities have consistently failed to take action against forest crimes committed in Prey Lang, an officially protected area, by PNT and other companies.
“The reporters were definitely in the wrong if they accepted bribes, but the loggers also broke the law, so both sides should be held equally accountable,” he said.
Nop Vy, executive director for the Coalition of Cambodian Journalists, or CCJ, called on provincial and court authorities to carefully investigate the case.
“The crimes that reporters have revealed have never been investigated, which has only encouraged further illegal logging,” he said.
A CCJ report for 2021 says that nearly 100 journalists faced harassment during the year, including 49 cases of physical assault, threats of violence, arrests and torture. Others were hit with lawsuits, and 37 journalists were jailed on charges of “incitement,” “extortion” and other crimes.
Attempts to reach Preah Vihear Provincial Prosecutor Ty Sovinthal and Sat Nak, a representative of the Vietnamese company PNT, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Illegal deforestation and government restrictions on forest access are undermining the spiritual practices, land rights, and livelihoods of one of Cambodia’s largest indigenous groups, according to a report by Amnesty International issued in early January.
The report, “’Our Traditions Are Being Destroyed’: Illegal Logging, Repression, and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Violations in Cambodia’s Protected Forests,” says illegal logging has been particularly damaging to the Kuy people in the Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka rainforests, which contain protected wildlife sanctuaries.
The Prey Lang Forest runs through Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Stung Treng provinces in northern Cambodia, while Prey Preah Roka is in Preah Vihear province.
Cambodia’s rate of deforestation is among the world’s fastest, and a survey published in 2020 by U.S. and EU monitors showed that Prey Lang lost more than one football pitch, or 1.76 acres, of woodlands to illegal logging every hour of 2019.
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