Journalist Reporting on New Airport’s Land Dispute Faces Pressure

4 min read
Residents set up tents to block bulldozers from clearing rice fields within the new Phnom Penh airport project in Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district on May 17, 2021. (Hy Chhay/VOD)

News publisher Los Seng, of Los Seng News, says he is under pressure over covering land disputes related to Phnom Penh’s new international airport in Kandal province, warned to stop his reporting and told that a case against him was headed to court.

Residents of the disputed airport land have for months been demanding compensation at market prices, blocking bulldozers from clearing their farmland and even holding a cursing ceremony against developers.

Seng said he regularly visited the protest site to cover the case, including broadcasting the cursing ceremony on his Online LSN TV24hnews Facebook page. Many of his reports are live broadcasts in which he allows protesters to vent their grievances.

“When we are stationed there, the company cannot do anything on the land. I tried to cover the truth about the situation and people’s concerns. We broadcast what people said — this point made them angry with me, especially the governor,” Seng said.

His office is based in Svay Rieng province, and the provincial information director Keo Chanly contacted him about the situation, Seng said. Kandal authorities had told Chanly that they were unhappy with Seng’s reporting, so the Svay Rieng information official told him to remove himself from covering the story, according to Seng.

Chanly could not be reached for comment.

Seng said he was then told by a source that provincial governor Kong Sophorn was instructing district officials in Kandal to also prevent Seng from covering the case.

Sophorn said he was busy and could not comment.

Kandal Stung district police chief Leng Sorun said journalists had made live broadcasts without seeking permission and had gone too far in reporting events. “They came to broadcast without asking the district authorities. … There has been difficulty,” Sorun said.

District police had informed the province about journalists covering the airport dispute, and there had since been less reporting, he said. “It has been quiet for more than a month. We have not seen them coming close to here.”

After hearing of the instructions to district officials, Seng contacted Information Minister Khieu Kanharith for help, and Kanharith replied that the Kandal governor had complained to him as well and a case was headed to court, according to a screenshot of messages, provided by Seng. Kanharith declined to meet Seng.

A spokesperson for the Kandal Provincial Court’s prosecutors, Chuon Sopanha, said he didn’t know about the case.

Earlier this month, the Information Ministry issued a public letter saying provincial authorities had the right to prosecute journalists if they interfered with official work.

“Legally, journalists have no right to enter areas banned by authorities, disrupting the legal performance or endangering the operations of authorities, or to disseminate false information, incite against the work of authorities, affect public order and society,” the letter says.

This week, ministry spokesperson Meas Sophorn would not comment specifically on Seng’s case, but said the letter was directed to Kandal authorities.

“The letter by the Ministry of Information informing the Kandal administration is not about restricting the rights and freedoms of journalists. It wants journalists to implement their role and duty following the law, regulations, norms, ethics and professionalism as journalists, so saying this letter restricted the rights and freedoms of journalists is a misunderstanding and please check the law,” Sophorn said.

He added that the Information Ministry was aware of court cases involving 30 journalists in only the first three months of the year.

Recent cases include people charged for allegedly approaching timber traders as journalists in order to extort them.

In a separate incident, Te Vibol, president of the Association of Freedom for Cambodian Journalists, posted on Facebook that he had helped to facilitate the release of Min Thy, publisher of the Reaksmey Banteay Daek website, arrested in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district. Vibol declined to provide further information, provincial police declined to comment, and district and commune authorities said they were not aware of the case.

Seng, of Los Seng News, said without reporters at protests like at the new airport, people would face greater threats from authorities.

A deputy village chief who supported the protesters was last month questioned and detained by police.

“They do everything to stop me but I do not follow it, because it is not reasonable. People keep demanding me to cover the news for them. … I will not betray my conscience,” Seng said. “This land dispute with the airport is not a small issue, but they are all powerful. … They are unhappy and will join hands together to break our spirit.”

Additional reporting by Nat Sopheap

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