A provincial court delayed a hearing against former Cambodia Daily reporters Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter on Wednesday for an indefinite period, citing the absence of a judge.
The pair is being tried at the Ratanakiri Provincial Court in a case that some observers decried as intimidation against journalists. They were charged with “incitement to commit a felony” after they interviewed villagers about their voting decisions prior to commune elections in 2017. Pate commune was the only commune in the province that elected now-outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) candidates in the 2012 commune elections.
Presiding Judge Kong Taing Meng said the hearing would be postponed indefinitely. “[Consulting] Judge Chanseyha has a special mission to India based on the request from the Ministry of Justice,” he said.
Peter declined to comment and Pheap could not be reached on Wednesday.
Both left the country following the lawsuit and live abroad. Their newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, closed under pressure from a disputed multimillion-dollar tax bill.
Deputy prosecutor Ra Bourani during the hearing requested that the court wait for the return of the judge. “I would like to inform the presiding judge that this hearing cannot continue because of the absence of a member of the penal judges,” he said. Defense lawyer Sek Sophorn asked to continue the hearing, but Judge Taing Meng granted the prosecutor’s request.
Sophorn told VOD outside the court that he would notify his clients about attending the next hearing, but that it was their right to remain absent. “I just have the duty to inform and contact them as soon as possible as a defense lawyer. Whether they come to attend or not, it is their right [to decide],” he said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, called for the charges to be dropped. “Journalism is not a crime and should not be treated as such. Journalists should be permitted to do their work in an environment that promotes their safety, without fear of negative repercussions. However, journalists continue to be subject to legal actions as a result of their work, which overall has a chilling effect on press freedom,” she told VOD in a message. “I therefore would like to appeal for the dropping of all charges against them and also call upon the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure that journalists are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction or judicial harassment and other forms of harassment.”
Human Rights Watch echoed the calls in a statement released on Monday. “The decision to take Pheap and Peter’s case to trial seems intended to intimidate all of Cambodia’s journalists,” said deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. “Prosecutors should drop these bogus charges and the government should end its efforts to restrict press freedom by criminalizing independent reporting.”