Cambodia: Journalists hounded by ‘forest mafiosi’
02 Jul 07

Journalists and environmental activists investigating deforestation in Cambodia are facing harassment, death threats and censorship after a report accused senior officials within the country’s government of involvement in illegal logging, kidnapping and attempted murder.

In Cambodia’s Family Trees UK-based campaign group Global Witness claims that leading figures in Cambodia’s government – including relatives of Prime Minister Hun Sen – are complicit in destroying large swathes of the country’s remaining forests and is calling for international donors to conduct a thorough inquiry into the activities of this ‘forest mafiosi’ before pledging future development money.

The Cambodian authorities responded to the report’s allegations by banning its publication inside the country, threatening Global Witness campaigners and harassing journalists reporting on the story.

The Prime Minister’s brother earlier this month directly threatened Global Witness, stating that ‘if they […] come to Cambodia I will hit them until their heads are broken’. Copies of the investigative report have subsequently been confiscated in Phnom Penh and several journalists targeted for covering the story.

Lem Piseth, a reporter with Radio Free Asia, received an anonymous death threat by mobile telephone after producing a piece looking at deforestation in the Kompong Thom province in central Cambodia. The caller accused Piseth of being insolent and asked if he wanted to die before stating that there would ‘not be enough land to bury you in’.

The journalist also claimed that whilst researching the story, he was followed by police and the military and was unexpectedly forced to leave a hotel by its owners, who provided no explanation. Piseth, fearing for his life following the death threat, has now fled to Thailand.

Soren Seelow, news editor with the French language daily Cambodge Soir, also suffered after publishing extracts of the Global Witness report in an article highlighting the pressure group’s findings. Seelow was summarily dismissed by the paper’s owners who claimed the article would upset the authorities and put them in a difficult position.

Employees on the newspaper subsequently striked in protest at Seelow’s removal, and have now been told the newspaper faces closure.

Reporters Sans Frontières said: ‘It is obvious that the Global Witness report on the over-exploitation of the Cambodian forests is upsetting some people. Since this report was released, all media have been subjected to unjustified state censorship… [W]e urge the authorities to identify those who made threats [to Lem Piseth] so he can safely resume his work.’

The report alleges that one of the most powerful logging syndicates in the country is the Seng Keang Company, allegedly controlled by the Prime Minister’s cousin Dy Chouch; his ex-wife Seng Keang; her brother Seng Kok Keang; the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Chan Sarun; and Director General of the Forest Administration, Ty Sokhum.

Under the guise of a rubber plantation scheme, the syndicate is accused of logging timber from the Prey Long forest. The targeting of resin trees has also destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds, if not thousands of families living in the area, the report states.

Global Witness also claims that the company attempted to kill two community forest activists who had protested against illegal logging in Prey Long. It is alleged that the elite army unit, known as the Brigade 70, which reportedly has close connections to senior politicians, including the Prime Minister, has transported illegally logged-timber and other smuggled goods.

Environmentalists and human rights pressure groups are now calling on a ‘complacent’ international donor community to launch their own inquiry into the allegations – and support the prosecution of those involved. Failure to do so, argue campaigners, will effectively mean that international money will continue to be fed into a corrupt regime and ultimately offer little benefit to Cambodia’s impoverished people.

It is not the first time the Cambodian authorities have attempted to stifle the findings of Global Witness; in 2005 copies of a previous report Taking A Cut were confiscated by customs officials at Pochentong Airport; in 2002 a senior Global Witness campaigner was beaten by a gang of masked men armed with sticks in Phnom Penh. Previous to this, activists had received threats by email from forest concession security staff.

Illegal logging, in Cambodia and across the world, is big business and frequently linked to organised crime and corrupt government officials.

Index previously revealed the dangers facing journalists and activists reporting on environmental abuses following a brutal attack on an Indonesian reporter, Arbi Kusno, investigating logging issues. Kusno was attacked by thugs armed with machetes and was so badly injured he was presumed dead, before waking up en-route to the morgue.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.