Cambodian authorities must immediately investigate the murder of a journalist who was found dead with ax wounds in the trunk of his car on September 11th, less than a week after he had exposed an alleged military connection to the illicit timber trade, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other rights groups say.
The body of Hang Serei Odom, 42, a reporter for the Khmer-language Virakchun Khmer Daily newspaper, was found in his car at a cashew plantation in the O’Chum district of northeastern Ratanakiri province, according to news reports. The journalist’s wife had reported him missing after he failed to return from an appointment on Sunday. He had recently written several news reports about timber mining and deforestation involving the Cambodian elite.
The Cambodia Daily quoted local police chief Song Bunthanorm as saying that Hang Serei Odom had been hit in the front and back of the head with an ax. The official said at least two people were involved in the murder, the report said. No suspects were immediately identified and the police have completed his autopsy.
Hang Serei Odom reported frequently on illegal logging activities in Ratanakiri province. In a September 6th report, he had alleged that a provincial military police officer was involved in the illicit timber trade and had used military vehicles to smuggle illegally cut logs.
Despite an official ban on timber exports, illegal logging activities are rife in Cambodia, according to independent environmental groups. News reporting on the illegal trade is considered highly sensitive and has proven to be extremely dangerous for both local and foreign journalists, according to CPJ research.
“The brutal murder of Hang Serei Odom underscores the grave risks Cambodian reporters face,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Prime Minister Hun Sen must make a stronger commitment to protecting journalists and bringing those who attack reporters to justice. To date, his record on both scores is sorely lacking.”
In April, military police shot dead environmental activist Chut Wutty while he was leading two Cambodia Daily journalists to a site in a protected forest in Koh Kong province where alleged illegal logging was taking place.
Chut Wutty was an outspoken critic of illegal logging and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group (NRPG), a Cambodian NGO that campaigns against the destruction of the country’s forests. He had received threats because of his activities and was taking pictures of the scene of the deforestation when a group of military policemen tried to confiscate the memory card from his camera, leading to the confrontation. Nobody has been brought to account for the activist’s murder.
I spoke with CPJ Asia Coordinator Bob Dietz about these cases and what CPJ would like to see happen in an investigation . Mr. Dietz said that the Cambodian government should follow the Cambodian constitution and order a full police investigation into Hang Serei Odom’s death. “If perpetrators be found, they can be brought to justice. In other cases we have seen with attacks and threats, there is very little justice for journalists. Unfortunately, journalists are seen as fair game and targeted for their work.”
He added that this attack against someone investigating illegal logging — an issue that is deeply embedded in Cambodian culture — is a story about people who are going up against the very powerful: “‘People who want to take these issues on are really running a risk and pushing their safety. There is no assurance for them. Will we see justice? I doubt it. Frankly, I would be shocked. And this man was killed with an ax. Bring this case to justice.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) issued a joint statement calling for a thorough investigation case and said that this case ”is closely related to press freedom and freedom of expression in Cambodia.”
Ramana Sorn, Coordinator of CCHR’s Cambodian Freedom of Expression Project said: “Although the right to freedom of expression and press freedom are not well-protected in Cambodia, in recent years we haven’t seen any cases of journalists being murdered. However it only takes one journalist to be killed, and for the murder to result in impunity, to send a strong, intimidating message to all other Cambodian media workers to be more wary and to practise self-censorship. Free expression in the media is absolutely necessary in a democracy to inform citizens and to allow for healthy debate.”
SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said that a thorough investigation must be conducted t0 send a signal that the killing of journalists will not be tolerated: ”The increasing trend in violence against journalists in Southeast Asia and recent developments in Cambodia demonstrate the risks faced by journalists and human rights activists in representing public interest issues.”
This 2007 CPJ Special Report Cambodia’s Battling Broadcasters, examines the risks Radio Free Asia journalists face in Cambodia, particularly when reporting on similar stories, including about illegal logging. In a country with few critical news sources, Radio Free Asia takes on tough stories and in doing so, puts the government on edge. “RFA journalists have fashioned a grassroots style of reporting that includes on-the-ground sound bites from citizens and undercover reports on illegal activities—techniques that are rare in the rest of Cambodia’s news media,” CPJ said at the time of the report’s release.
In 2007, RFA Khmer was the first news source to broadcast the Global Witness Report, “Cambodia’s Family Trees,” which documented how a “kleptocratic elite” with ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family was stripping the country of its wealth by illegal logging in Cambodian provinces. RFA reporter Lem Pichpisey who went into the Prey Lang forest to gather audio interviews and photos of one of the illegal operations, later had to flee the country because of resulting death threats. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have documented this case extensively.
In his news report, Lem Pichpisey said that “Illegal logging in Cambodia not only fills the pockets of the political elite; it also funds the activities of a 4,000-strong private army controlled by Hun Sen. The Brigade 70 unit runs a nationwide timber-trafficking and -smuggling service, catering to prominent tycoons, that generates profits of U.S. $2 million to U.S. $2.75 million per year. A large slice of these profits goes to [the] commander of the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit Lieutenant-General Hing Bun Heang.”
After filing this news story, he received an anonymous call in which he was told: “You beware. You watch out, you could get killed. Don’t be too outspoken—you can die.”