Among the huts of Mondul Seima district, in the southwestern province of Koh Kong, a young Cambodian journalist on assignment last week related hearing a military police officer utter four bone-chilling words:
“Just kill them both.”
The sinister suggestion came minutes after a fellow member of the military police had allegedly shot and killed environmental activist Chut Wutty, who was escorting the reporter and her colleague into the Cardamom Mountains to look into illegal logging.
The military police officer in question, In Rattana, died moments later in circumstances that remain unclear. Early official accounts of In Rattana’s death have run the gamut from ricocheting bullets to a snap decision to commit suicide.
Yesterday, it emerged that a third man, a potential suspect in In Rattana’s shooting, was being questioned by police.
As the two reporters later recounted in their newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, the tense atmosphere cooled as more authorities began to show up.
The military police questioned them and, after a night in detention, they were released unharmed – at least physically.
The Western half of the reporting duo, a Canadian national, has since left the country, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Calls and emails to the Cambodia Daily were not returned.
Although the treatment of those with Chut Wutty could be viewed as a footnote to his tragic death, it has resurrected the issue of risks that journalists face working in Cambodia.
Leading up to today’s World Press Freedom Day, media monitors, local reporters and human-rights groups say that despite laws on the books intended to enshrine individual expression, the reality is far trickier.
“It is safe if you do not cover the controversial issues. If you cover a controversial issue, you are in danger,” says Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian centre for Independent Media. “To me, journalists in Cambodia are still at risk.”
Cambodia’s constitution, drafted in 1993, guarantees the right to an unfettered press.
But Article 495 of the penal code also bars the distribution of material that could incite “serious turmoil in society”, according to international government watchdog Freedom House.
A 2009 analysis by the human-rights group Licahdo stated there had been at least 10 unsolved cases of murdered journalists in the past decade, and the level of impunity has contributed to a climate of fear.
Licadho’s research includes a story about a Cambodian journalist for Radio Free Asia who fled to Norway with his family after receiving death threats. Then there’s the case of another journalist who was stabbed to death in what police later called a robbery gone wrong.
The most well-known attack occurred in July, 2008 and involved a Phnom Penh-based reporter named Khim Sambo, who worked for the newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer. Following unflattering articles about members of the Cambodian People’s Party in the weeks leading up to the 2008 national election, two men on a motorbike shot and killed him and his 21-year-old son.
Rob Carmichael, of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, said local journalists like Khim Sambo who worked for Khmer-language publications, as opposed to Western-based outlets, were the most vulnerable.
But he noted that the nature of intimidation was different today.
“The risk has changed from physical harm to one of being hit with a lawsuit. Which I suppose you can call progress.”
In a statement, Carmichael pointed out several of what he called violations of press freedom leading up to Chut Wutty’s shooting in Koh Kong, including the confiscation of cameras and attempts to prevent the reporters and Chut Wutty leaving a public road.
The effort to prevent journalists documenting the illegal logging trade is nothing new.
In December, military police, or soldiers identifying themselves as security guards, threatened Post staff reporting in Koh Kong with arrest and forced them to delete more than 100 photos, some of which were of trucks transporting rosewood.
Ek Tha, of the Council of ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said the government had no policy of harassing reporters or restricting media.
“But, at the same time, some reporters might be faced with people or individuals who do not understand the role of the reporter or the role of media,” he said.
In light of the events in Koh Kong, Ek Tha called on law enforcement to see journalists as friends, not foes, and recommended that reporters travelling into remote areas should get in contact with local authorities before leaving.
A former journalist who spent much of his career with Reuters, Ek Tha called Cambodia a “very safe” country for reporters.
But the experiences of those in the field, like Radio Free Asia reporter Ratha Visal, 57, suggest otherwise.
Ratha Visal says that while he was working on a story about illegal logging six years ago, someone involved in the industry threatened to pay $500 to have him run over with a car.
In another incident, angry soldiers drew their guns on him while he was reporting on ethnic Vietnamese issues on the border.
He tries not to dwell too much on the fear factor, lest it get in the way of the reporting.
“This is my job, and the people who have this work [fellow journalists] will think as I do,” he says.