A Canadian journalist who was charged two years ago with incitement to commit a felony while covering an election campaign in Cambodia says he wants to know why the Canadian government has not publicly denounced the case as the trial moves ahead for Christmas Day.
Zsombor Peter said he was working as a reporter for the English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily in May, 2017, when he travelled to Ratanakiri Province with Cambodian colleague, Aun Pheap, to report on country-wide community elections.
“We had gone simply to find out what was on the minds of registered voters as the polls approached. We spent most of a day interviewing villagers in Pate commune at random about their political leanings and related thoughts and concerns,” he said in an e-mail.
The police had stopped the journalists on two occasions to ask why they were there, Mr. Peter said, but they had left them alone. The next day, they learned that two of their interview subjects, and another man who wasn’t interviewed, complained to local authorities about them. Months later, the complaint made its way to court and they were charged with incitement to commit a felony.
“For the record, Pheap and I did not intimidate or incite anyone and the charge is not only baseless but absurd, lacking a shred of evidence,” said Mr. Peter, who has not returned to Cambodia since leaving in October, 2017.
The charge carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
Mr. Peter said an official at the Canadian embassy in Cambodia told him the office met with Cambodian authorities about his case, but did not provide any details.
“I'd like to know why the Canadian government has not denounced this case, and the Cambodian court system's handling of it, publicly and forcefully. If it won't do so, it should explain why,” he said.
Angela Savard, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, said the government is aware of the upcoming trial and that Canadian officials are providing consular services. Ms. Savard said owing to Privacy Act provisions, no further information can be disclosed.
Mr. Peter, who is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia, said he covered Cambodia for eight years, including trials of politicians and rights advocates and wrote investigative stories on the illegal logging business in the province where the complaint was made.
He believes the case against him and his Cambodian colleague is "politically motivated, meant to discourage us and other independent journalists from reporting on politics and other sensitive issues honestly.”
Mr. Peter said he is undecided about whether to return to Cambodia to attend the trial. His colleague also left Cambodia, Mr. Peter said, out of concern he may be arrested.
Reporters Without Borders has called for the immediate withdrawal of the “absurd, trumped-up charges” against the two journalists.
“Everything about the 30-month-old case smacks of judicial chicanery,” said the organization, adding that the charge came to light just weeks after The Cambodia Daily had been forced to stop publishing as a result of “harassment by the government."
Scheduling the first hearing for Dec. 25 is an additional “mean trick” because the government can take advantage of holidays in other countries to “violate human rights without too much publicity.”
“Mostly I feel sad," Mr. Peter said. "I’m sad for Pheap, who had to leave his family and country behind. I’m sad about what the government is doing to Cambodia, which I miss and over eight years I came to care about very much.”
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