A journalist in Cambodia was beaten to death over the weekend following a series of articles he had written exposing illegal fishing, prompting calls from a local rights group for a probe into the murder amidst a “widespread culture of impunity” in the country.
Suon Chan, a 44-year-old reporter for the Meakea Kampuchea newspaper, was killed on Saturday night in Kampong Chhnang province’s Cholkiri district.
Cholkiri district police chief Morm Thon told RFA’s Khmer Service that three suspects had been identified in connection with the murder but that they are still on the run.
He denied that the murder was linked to recent articles by the reporter that led to a police raid on illegal fishing.
“Through my investigations, the murder is not related to these articles,” he said. “It was a violent fight. We are working to arrest the suspects.”
The local Phnom Penh Post reported Monday that he was killed after being confronted by a group of 10 fishermen as he was leaving his home in Peam Chhkork commune.
Citing Cholkiri district police officer Tith Reth, the paper said that Suon Chan was beaten unconscious by four of the fishermen and died after being sent for medical treatment.
“He had stones thrown at him, and was beaten with the base of a bamboo stalk by a group of people while he was walking alone out of his house in order to buy cigarettes from a shop in the village,” the Post quoted Tith Reth as saying.
“He was hit and seriously injured on his head and neck, and lost consciousness at the scene … And after the beating, the suspects managed to escape,” he added.
Two relatives of the reporter were also beaten after they rushed to his aid upon hearing his cries for help. Both were sent for treatment at the provincial referral hospital, the Post reported.
Peam Chhkork commune police chief Duong Vuthy told the paper that he suspected Suon Chan’s killing was motivated by his past reporting on illegal fishing, which had resulted in police crackdowns.
“So far, we do not know the exact reason for this journalist’s assassination, but according to our preliminary investigation, it is related to the rancor between the victim and the group of suspects, because he used his influence as a journalist in reporting and writing about the suspects’ illegal fishing activities in the commune,” he said.
Soun Chan’s brother Soun Dim said that the reporter had been celebrating Chinese New Year with friends and was attacked with metal bars and sticks when he left the house to buy cigarettes, adding that four suspects had been involved in the beating.
“I can identify the suspects. I appeal to the authorities to bring the suspects to justice,” he said.
He did not say whether the attack had been motivated by his brother’s reporting.
Call for probe
The weekend incident prompted local rights group The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) to issue a statement Monday calling Suon Chan’s death “yet another affront to freedom of expression, and in particular to freedom of the press.”
It said journalists in Cambodia “are regularly targeted for their work and where a culture of impunity for these crimes reigns.”
Suon Chan is the twelfth journalist to have been killed in Cambodia since 1994 and the first since reporter Hang Serei Oudom’s battered body was found in the trunk of his car in September 2012 in Rattanakiri province after he had been looking into claims of illegal logging and extortion, CCHR said.
“The majority of these deaths have not been properly investigated, with the perpetrators still at large and rewarded with complete impunity for their crimes,” the statement said.
“CCHR urges the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure that a full and impartial investigation into Suon Chan’s death is conducted and that the perpetrators are brought to justice, not only to ensure justice for Suon Chan’s family but also to promote a culture of respect for and protection of journalists and their work.”
CCHR Human Rights Defenders project coordinator Chhay Chhunly called Suon Chan’s case a reminder that the situation of freedom of expression—and particularly freedom of the press—in Cambodia is “dire,” with journalists routinely harassed, brought to court on politically-motivated charges and killed.
“But Suon Chan’s death indicates not only a rampant disregard for freedom of expression, but also a widespread culture of impunity, where people can resort to committing murder, knowing that they will probably never be brought to justice,” she said in the statement.
“A transparent investigation into his murder is absolutely necessary; without one, the situation for journalists will only continue to deteriorate.”
Speaking to RFA, Chhay Chhunly urged the government to investigate the past murders of journalists in Cambodia as well. “If the government ignores those cases, it will show that the security of journalists is not important.”
According to data collected by Sithi.org, an online human rights resource, four journalists were killed in Cambodia in 1994, one in 1996, three in 1997, and one each in 2003, 2008 and 2012.