A Canadian journalist who was charged two years ago in Cambodia says justice has been delayed even further after his trial, which was scheduled for Christmas Day, was postponed.
Zsombor Peter was charged alongside his Cambodian colleague, Aun Pheap, with incitement to commit a felony in 2017, months after covering an election campaign in Ratanakiri province for English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily. Earlier this week, Mr. Peter questioned why the Canadian government hadn’t publicly denounced the case.
The Ratanakiri Provincial Court met for 10 minutes on Wednesday before the judge decided to reschedule the hearing and called on the journalists to appear in court. No trial date was set, attendees said.
Mr. Peter, who did not attend the trial, said he learned it had been postponed after speaking with his lawyer. He said it was postponed because one of the three judges was out of the country.
“They say justice delayed is justice denied. Well, justice in this case has been delayed for more than two and a half years already, and they’re just adding on time,” Mr. Peter said in a WhatsApp message from an undisclosed location somewhere in Southeast Asia. “I hope the court does not now choose to drag this out for even longer,” he said.
Mr. Peter said he chose not to attend the trial because of the risk of being placed in pretrial detention or denied the right to leave the country. Mr. Pheap had to leave his family behind in Cambodia and is seeking asylum while working at Radio Free Asia in the United States, reported VOA Khmer.
May Titthara – executive director of CamboJA, a Cambodian association that works to strengthen the independence and power of media and protect journalists – said the judge reportedly called for the attendance of both men at the next hearing.
The case has been widely denounced by human-rights and civil-society organizations, who have called for its dismissal. Human Rights Watch called the case “fabricated” and part of a “broader media crackdown” involving government harassment of independent journalists, which they say has increased over the past two years since the most recent national election.
Mr. Peter said that he was working for the newspaper in May of 2017, when he and Mr. Pheap travelled to Ratanakiri province to report on countrywide community elections. He said they 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 told The Globe and Mail earlier this week.
Pate was the only commune the opposition won in Ratanakiri province during an earlier election, in 2012, which was the backdrop for the story.
“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,” Mr. Peter said. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to two years.
Mr. Peter said an official at the Canadian embassy in Cambodia told him that the office met with Cambodian authorities about his case but the official did not provide any details. A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said the government was aware of the trial.
Weeks before Mr. Peter and Mr. Pheap were charged, The Cambodia Daily was given a US$6.3-million bill for allegedly unpaid taxes, forcing the paper to close.
In May, 2018, independent media outlet The Phnom Penh Post was purchased by a Malaysian investor with reported ties to the Cambodian government, sparking an uproar and mass exodus by the paper’s staff. A tax bill of US$3.9-million was settled as part of the sale.
According to CamboJA, discrimination against the media also works in less covert ways – such as the denial of identification for independent journalists, which is necessary to work in the country.
Former Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were charged in 2017 with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence, and are awaiting a January, 2020, court date. These are not the only cases in progress against local and international journalists.
Former Cambodia Daily editor-in-chief Kevin J. Doyle, who helmed the English-language daily from 2004 to 2014, said the media climate in the country has changed over the past few years.
“While journalists being threatened in this way is common in Cambodia, the independent media landscape has transformed since 2017. … The ruling party has created a positive news filter bubble around itself, which may satisfy short-term political desires but cuts the party off from actual public sentiment,” Mr. Doyle said.