Case of slain journalist could be first to find justice

IMPUNITY CASE PROFILE

[Original title: Case of slain journalist could be first to find justice in Cambodia]

slain13n-2-webHang Serei Odom, 44, had been working as a journalist at the Khmer-language Virakchun Khmer daily in Ratanakkiri, northeast of Cambodia, for four months when he was brutally murdered in September this year.

Hang Serei Odom left his home on 9 September, telling his family that he would only be gone for a short while to meet a certain “Mr Heng”. His wife, Im Chanthy, who was seven months pregnant at that time, called the police when he did not return the following day.

 

His body was discovered two days later, locked inside the trunk of his car. Villagers had alerted police to the vehicle, which was emitting a foul odor after it was found abandoned in a cashew plantation.

Hang’s body was found face down, with two hack wounds on his head. All of his belongings were left untouched, leading investigators to conclude that the killing was a premeditated murder.

His editor at the Virakchun Khmer said in his four months with the newspaper, Hang Serei Odom had exposed a number of cases of powerful and well-connected people linked to illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.

In his final story for the newspaper, Hang Serei Odom alleged that King Seanglay, the son of a provincial military police commander, was involved in the illegal timber trade. He wrote that King, who is also a military police officer, was smuggling logs in vehicles with military license plates, and was involved in extorting money from villagers trying to legally transport wood for legitimate construction.

Investigation

On 13 September, several people, including King Seanglay, were brought for questioning into the Banlung municipal police station. Most were released within the day, but two remained in custody: military police captain An Bunheng and his wife.

On Saturday, 15 September, An and his wife were sent to court for questioning. The two were charged with premeditated murder, and were placed in pre-trial detention at the provincial prison. An Bunheng is known to be a close friend of King Seanglay’s father.

On 10 October, the court again summonsed King Seanglay for questioning, after Im Chanty said that she would testify on the same day about an alleged confrontation between her husband and King in April. According to Im, the confrontation followed the publication of an article linking the officer to the illegal timber trade, and later, King tried to run her husband off the road in his vehicle.

The larger picture

At least 11 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, and none of these have been brought to justice. The case of Hang Serei Odom is the latest  killing of a journalist since the 2008 murder of Khim Sambo, of the opposition-aligned newspaper, Moneakseka Khmer, and who wrote extensively about nepotism and corruption within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Between 2007 and 2011, 123 cases of media harassment were reported, including arrests of journalists, preventing reporters from entering public events, confiscating or damaging equipment, criminal charges, threats, violence, and closure of independent news outlets.

As a consequence of such harassment, evidence suggests that a culture of self-censorship pervades among media professionals, who avoid publishing information that the government may consider offensive or politically sensitive. Observers have noted that there is an active policy on the part of publishers and editors to cover less sensitive and often less interesting stories “in order to stay out of harm’s way.

The culture of impunity with regards to such harassment prevails despite Cambodia’s obligations under international human rights and domestic law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Under Cambodian law ratified international conventions automatically become part of domestic law.

The murder of Hang Serei Odom, likely as a result of his reporting on illegal logging, continues the culture of impunity against the media.

Although a full investigation seems to be underway on the murder of Hang Serei Odom, it remains to be seen whether justice will be served. Presently, the investigating judge is still undertaking initial questioning.

Furthermore, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media said that the killing emphasized the need for an access to information law in Cambodia to protect journalists who are increasingly in danger because of their work.

Support for Hang Serei Odom

Eight international non-governmental organizations called attention to the Hang Serei Odom case in the run up to a key meeting between donors and the government in September in Phnom Penh. The open letter highlighted the urgent human rights situation in Cambodia and asked donors to be responsible in reminding the government of its international obligations. Both the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights have called for a thorough investigation into the journalist’s murder.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, told the media that she was deeply concerned about the murder of Hang Serei Odom and called for a fair investigation into the case: “Crimes against media personnel must be brought to justice to prevent a climate of fear from constricting journalists’ ability to claim their human and professional right to freedom of expression.” (case contributed by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights)