The Ministry of Interior is considering initiating criminal proceedings against a Radio Free Asia journalist accused of sneaking into the capital’s Prey Sar prison with a delegation of opposition lawmakers on Wednesday.
A Prisons Department report accused Chun Chanboth, deputy director of RFA Khmer, of pretending to be a CNRP assistant in order to enter the prison compound on Wednesday, and recommends criminal proceedings against him. However, the US-based journalist yesterday maintained that he did not trick the prison guards into letting him into Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre 1, noting that he had clearly stated his identity before being allowed to enter. Chanboth had been attempting to meet jailed political commentator Kim Sok, and was ultimately unsuccessful.
The prisons report finds Chanboth in violation of Article 621 of the Criminal Code for using an “identity different from official identity in public affairs”, which carries a one- to six-month prison sentence. He was also accused of violating sub-sections of Article 7 of the Law on the Press that concern invasion of privacy and “respect [for] Khmer grammar in writing articles”.
The report also says he violated Article 58 of the Law on Prisons, which allows for the arrest of a visitor for “affecting [the] order, security and safety of the prison”.
Nuth Savna, director of the Prisons Department, said a CNRP delegation led by lawmakers Mu Sochua and Long Ry had received permission to visit jailed activists, along with a few colleagues and assistants, and that Chanboth had intentionally checked in as an assistant in order to enter with the group.
A picture of the visitors’ log circulated on Facebook shows Chanboth signed in as Huot Vuthy his given name on his ID and passport; Chun Chanboth is a pen name – with “assistant” written in the next column.
“He put ‘assistant’ because he wants to make it match with the permission letter,” Savna said. “If he is not an assistant, he has no right to enter. So what is his intention in going there?”
Savna insisted that Chanboth’s entering the compound violated internal regulations of the prison and was criminal in nature because he allegedly concealed his identity.
However, Chanboth yesterday maintained that he had made his identity clear not once, but twice: first, when he first attempted to meet Kim Sok earlier in the day but was turned back by prison guards, and again when he saw the CNRP delegation entering the prison, and again attempted to get in.
“I identified myself and put my real name, Huot Vuthy. The police and guards know who I am – Chun Chanboth,” he said.
He also maintained that he never wrote “assistant”, instead leaving the column next to his name blank, and only entering the time and his signature.
“I did not write that I was an assistant. Somebody must have written it, and the handwriting is similar to those seen above,” he said.
For his part, Sophan Lary, a CNRP activist in the same delegation, said that he remembered Chanboth leaving the column blank.
Chanboth said he was unfazed by the accusations because he had done nothing wrong, but did feel like he was being targeted, potentially for his affiliation to RFA.
The government has consistently accused RFA of what it considers biased coverage of Cambodia, with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement last week branding them a “die hard pro opposition” radio station.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the Prisons Department report had been submitted to senior officials and that a decision was pending on whether to press charges, before appearing to equate publishing an interview with attempted murder.
“If he could interview Kim Sok, he would write about that when he got out. But he failed. If we compare it to a murder, it is a planned murder, but it failed,” he said.
Additionally, Sopheak said the CNRP in the future would be barred from visiting their officials in prison, adding that the visits were always political in nature and served only to relay prisoner complaints.
CNRP lawmaker Sochua, however, said she was unaware if Chanboth’s presence until after they had entered the prison.
“I thought maybe he got separate authorisation, and no one asked us if he was with our group,” she said.
Sochua added that the entire episode was only a misunderstanding and was hopeful a solution could be reached with regards to both Chanboth and the barring of future CNRP prison visits.
Meanwhile, media expert Moeun Chhean Naridh said that the government shouldn’t be so reluctant to allow journalists access to state institutions – within reason – given their role in a functioning democracy to report the truth.
Setting aside whether or not Chanboth misrepresented himself, Chhean Naridh said when access is so restricted it sometimes becomes necessary for journalists to work around the conventions of clearly identifying themselves in order to bring important stories to light.
“In this case, entering prison to get information for a story will outweigh the ethical infractions,” he said.