PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Two Cambodian journalists who had worked for U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and are charged with espionage were released on bail Tuesday, a day after a pardon freed four land rights activists from prison.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who is better known by his professional name of Yeang Socheameta, were arrested last November and charged with undermining national security by supplying information to a foreign state. The two journalists were also later charged with producing pornography after police said they found pornographic images on their computers. They face possible prison terms of up to 15 years.
The pair were greeted by friends and family when they walked out of Prey Sar prison Tuesday evening.
“Frankly speaking, we are not fully receiving our freedom because we must still present ourselves upon police request,” Yeang Sothearin told journalists outside the prison. “We are continuing to urge the court to drop all charges against us so that we can do our jobs, living our lives as other people do.”
His colleague, Uon Chhin, vowed to stay in his profession. “I love my job as a journalist,” he said.
Their employer welcomed their release on bail while also calling for the charges against them to be dropped.
“The targeting and intimidation of anyone who has worked as an independent journalist in Cambodia is a clear violation of press freedom,” said Libby Liu, president of Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia. “With today’s development, we hope all charges against them are dropped and their case is immediately dismissed.”
Their arrests came during Cambodia’s crackdown on the media and political opponents before last month’s general election.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party swept the results in a vote widely seen as not fair or credible. The official voter turnout was high even though a boycott had been called by the main opposition party that was dissolved last year by a court ruling seen as biased.
Hun Sen, who has been in office since 1985 and has held a tight grip on power since ousting a co-prime minister in a bloody 1997 coup, has a record of cracking down harshly when facing a serious challenge, then effecting reconciliation when he no longer feels threatened. The pattern keeps human rights groups and Western governments off balance and moderates their criticism.
On Monday, four women jailed for participating in Cambodia’s land rights movement were freed under a royal pardon requested by Hun Sen. One of those freed, Tep Vanny, had led protests against evictions from a lakeshore community in Phnom Penh where the government had granted concessions to develop a luxury residential and commercial community.
Last September, Radio Free Asia closed its office in Cambodia after operating for 20 years, citing unprecedented government intimidation of the media. By the end of last year, the government had closed more than a dozen radio stations, some of which had rebroadcast Radio Free Asia’s programs, and the English-language The Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to shut down.
The two reporters were no longer working for RFA after their office closed, and police initially said they had been detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. But they were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and charged with espionage.
A spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Ei Rin, said it ordered the release on bail as requested by the journalists’ lawyer.
After their release, the two journalists went to a Buddhist temple to get a monk’s blessings, a rite meant to get rid of bad luck.
Their detention had been sharply criticized by rights groups and journalists’ associations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement issued Wednesday that they welcomed the journalists’ release on bail, “but they never should have been detained in the first place.”
“Authorities should drop these bogus charges and stop harassing journalists with frivolous accusations,” said Shawn Crispin, the New York-based group’s representative in Southeast Asia.