A journalist is being questioned by police after Defense Minister Tea Banh, head of the CPP working group for Koh Kong, apparently instructed local officials about taking legal action and countering the journalist’s criticism of a deputy governor.
Youn Chhiv, who runs the Koh Kong Hot News website, was purportedly part of the land dispute himself while reporting that authorities were evicting people from state land they had farmed for years.
In his reports, Chhiv said authorities were violating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call last year to grant land titles to ordinary people who had long-standing claims on state land.
An audio recording, shared with VOD, appears to show Defense Minister Banh instructing Koh Kong officials to take action against Chhiv. Several government-aligned media outlets have reported on Banh’s instructions, including some that quoted from the recording. Koh Kong provincial information department director Mom Malika said the recording could have been shared in a group with provincial officials, but declined to elaborate. Banh could not be reached for comment.
Banh’s purported voice in the recording says he told provincial governor Mithona Phouthorng to pursue a lawsuit against Chhiv.
“Just a moment ago I told Mithona to check and to discuss with the provincial law expert to file a lawsuit against him. He twisted the truth and promoted bad ideas, and we need to clarify it,” it says. “We have to make urgent reports to send to all the places about the administration’s actions against encroachers of land.”
He would call on Fresh News staffers to help spread information that would correct Chhiv’s video reports, it adds.
“In there, there is a Fresh News representative, and [we will] send it to him to help disseminate that the video twisted the truth,” the recording says. “Take action quickly, and should not be silent, and they will disseminate it all over the place. It has caused a mess and issues, destroying reputations. [We’re] discussing it with a legal expert and handling it.”
Other media would also be enlisted to help, it says.
“[We] urgently need to discuss with the media in the province and attack him first, directly, with his name,” it says. “All media should publish it in advance, and [then] make a written letter and consult with the legal expert to send the case in time. [We] should not allow this. It is unacceptable.”
Chhiv had made a mistake when he “attacked the administration’s measures,” it says.
“He has violated and attacked the administration’s measures, and if we do not handle this carefully, we cannot control the state, and the state needs to take action against the violator through administrative measures,” it says, noting that villagers were told to leave but failed to follow instructions.
In one of Chhiv’s videos, he interviews three villagers who say they came to live on the land, in Botom Sakor district, in 2007. They say authorities have this year been destroying their cashew trees, sugarcane and cassava plants to try to evict them without compensation. About 130 officers from police, military police and local administrations had come to clear their land, they say.
“People survive through their farmland, but now they have cleared it all. So where can people plant their crops and rice?” one villager asks, pleading for help from Prime Minister Hun Sen and Defense Minister Banh.
“Our authorities have not followed samdech’s remarks. They might know that samdech would lose [power] one day, so they do this and they do not follow samdech,” the villager says in the video. “They do not look after the people and they only destroy people.”
Chhiv says in the video that villagers come to his office and ask for his help, telling him they’ve been threatened with arrest. “Do they not know where the provincial governor is?” he asks.
He also mentions sub-decrees that have privatized over 100,000 hectares of Koh Kong parks, ostensibly to give titles to villagers using the land. He asks why the villagers are not being given titles, but being evicted instead.
In one Facebook post, Chhiv directly criticizes deputy governor Sok Sothy, saying the official is breaking people’s hearts.
Botum Sakor district police chief Sok Phon said on Tuesday afternoon that Chhiv had come in that day for questioning at the police station.
“Our police, with the deputy provincial chief, are in the process of questioning. … We have questioned him for about four hours, and we do not know yet [whether to send him to court]. Wait until the work has finished,” Phon said.
The provincial administration, meanwhile, issued a statement on Sunday saying Chhiv had disseminated “baseless information that is not true.”
The statement highlights one video, “Koh Kong Provincial Deputy Governor Sok Sothy Is Cruel and Abuses Citizens.”
“The publication of this information is intended to tarnish the reputation of Mr. Sok Sothy, Koh Kong deputy governor, and hurts the reputation of the provincial administration, confuses the public and causes confusion and social unrest,” the statement says.
It says authorities went to Thma Sar commune on September 19 after issuing two prior warnings to people who had illegally encroached on state land and built huts. Authorities were “implementing administrative measures” against illegal encroachment, it says.
“Among those encroachers, there is Youn Chhiv, the journalist, the person who tried to disseminate the distorted truth,” the statement says, requesting all journalists to respect the law.
Sothy, the deputy governor criticized by Chhiv, said on Monday that he had submitted a complaint to provincial police and the case was now in their hands.
“The land is a national sanctuary … when he published such distortions of the truth like this — it damages reputations, and most importantly the public misunderstands, especially people who live outside and do not know that the land is a national sanctuary.”
Sok Sovan, a provincial reporter in Koh Kong, said that as far as he knew, Chhiv had a cashew farm on the land in question.
But the heavy-handed response from authorities was chilling, he said.
“It impacts other journalists. As you know, when a journalist posts on Facebook, they can charge [us] saying it is a red-handed crime,” Sovan said. “If the journalist published something wrong, they should pursue [the case] through the Press Law.”
“Journalists face high risks because in our world, publishing some wrong information often happens,” he added. “It’s a challenge when they file a case to court and we face imprisonment.”