Supreme Court Hears Appeals From RT News Fixer, Ex-RFA Journalists

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Former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin (left) and Yeang Sothearin (right) exit the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after their verdict announcement was delayed on August 30, 2019. (Ouch Sony/VOD)

Cambodia’s highest court heard two appeals on Wednesday from media professionals who were seeking remedies to judicial decisions that they have described as unjust.  

In a Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday morning, a former news fixer and translator for Russian state-owned media network RT again denied responsibility for the production of a controversial documentary on underage sex trafficking in Cambodia. 

Rath Rott Mony was found guilty of incitement to discriminate by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in June 2019 for his role in the RT documentary “My Mother Sold Me,” which tells the story of Cambodian girls allegedly sold for sex to alleviate their families’ poverty. 

He appealed the two-year jail sentence from the Municipal Court, but the Appeal Court had upheld the decision. 

Rott Mony told the court on Wednesday that he had worked as a translator and had no role in the editorial and production decisions by RT. Outside the court, he said that by filing a grievance complaint with the Supreme Court, he hoped to get justice that he did not receive from the lower courts. 

“The Appeal Court did not give me justice,” he said. “I did not commit [the crime] as I was charged.”

Rath Rott Mony arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 26, 2019 ahead of his verdict. (Supplied)
Rath Rott Mony arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 26, 2019 ahead of his verdict. (Supplied)

Defense lawyer Lor Chunthy said in court that Rott Mony was hired as a fixer and translator for $120 per day by RT and he had no communication with the news outlet while the film was being edited and therefore no control over the documentary’s published content. 

Chunthy presented a letter from RT to the Cambodian Embassy in Moscow, which said that Rott Mony worked for RT as a translator and that the documentary was edited in Moscow in August and September 2018 by RT media staff.

After it was released in October of that year, government officials immediately questioned the stories portrayed in the 27-minute documentary, with some claiming the women were acting. By December, Rott Mony was arrested in Thailand and extradited to Cambodia after police questioned the families who appeared in the film.

“We already stated that Mr. Rath Rott Mony worked with our team as only a fixer and translator,” Chunthy read to the court from the letter. 

Presiding Judge Kim Sothavy responded that Rott Mony was named as a producer in the documentary’s credits and the defendant appeared to work beyond the general scope of a fixer and translator, according to his activities described in the case file. 

“Your client is not just working on that. He has done a lot more beyond that,” Sothavy said. “So your client needs to take responsibility.” 

Chunthy then referred to the RT letter to the Cambodian Embassy again. 

Following Rott Mony’s arrest, director Pavel Burnatov denied the film’s subjects were acting and said the RT crew had given the women $200 to buy a washing machine to support their laundry business, according to an RT article from 2018.

Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesman for human rights group Adhoc, told VOD on Wednesday that the charge against Rott Mony had no clear legal basis. If the charges against the translator were not dropped, Senkaruna said both national and international observers would lose confidence in Cambodia’s justice system. 

“We hope that with a new [justice] minister in office, [the court] will reinspect that case over its irregularities without any discrimination against groups that do social work…and who dare to criticize or act to reveal improper conduct,” he said. “[They] should encourage [social criticism] and provide justice by releasing him and dropping the charges.” 

In its decision to partially withdraw Cambodia’s duty-free trade access to European markets under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme, the European Commission named press freedom among a range of human and labor rights issues within Cambodia, noting that journalists have been prosecuted “for no apparent reason other than that they had reportedly spoken out against the Cambodian government or engaged in advocacy activities.”

Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard a separate appeal from former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin against the lower courts’ decisions to reinvestigate pornography charges against them. 

Chhin, a former cameraman, and Sothearin, an ex-news editor for the U.S.-funded RFA were arrested in 2017 on charges of alleged espionage and “production of pornography,” accusations they both deny.  The Municipal Court had ordered reinvestigations into the charges, which the Appeal Court upheld at the end of last year. 

The men were released on bail in August 2018. Sothearin has produced news articles for VOD on a freelance basis.

Sam Chamroeun, the journalists’ lawyer, told the courtroom that the initial investigation had taken long enough and that neither the judge nor prosecutor had raised any issues with the investigation before the Municipal Court announced its decision to review the case further. 

Defense lawyers had asked the Municipal Court to return the reporters’ identification documents, saying their rights were being restricted, but the court denied the request in an order from late January.  

Sothavy, who also served as the presiding judge in the former RFA journalists’ hearing, said the reinvestigation was a fair procedure used to determine the extent of the distribution of the allegedly illegal video.

“The Municipal Court decision to hold a reinvestigation and the decision from the Appeal Court are not  injustices, but they are a way of finding the truth,” Sothavy said.

The verdicts in both cases are set for July 15. 

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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