A human rights staffer and three documentary filmmakers were confronted and detained by environmental police in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district over the weekend as they attempted to interview residents in a land dispute.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights staffer Vanndy Buth and documentary filmmakers Phan Ream, Voun Boren and Suong Sopheak – hired by ActionAid Cambodia – were prevented from leaving Sangkon Thmey village while on a trip to investigate forced land evictions tied to a special economic zone operated by logging tycoon Try Pheap, according to a statement released Saturday.
“Such an obstruction should [require] a court order,” said CCHR advocacy manager Piseth Duch. “It’s a bad activity relating to an NGO’s freedoms, because it is not illegal to interview and shoot video.”
Having reached the province on December 22, Buth was twice asked to meet district governor Heng Sopheana the next day to discuss the documentary, a request he said they had no legal obligation to comply with.
“The community had already informed the authorities. We had no plan to meet with the district authority. As far as i know, there is no law that requires us to inform the authorities,” he said, adding that they had scheduled interviews with 21 families and were hewing to a tight schedule.
The next morning, local environmental police were waiting, preventing the quartet from filming at the site by blocking the road.
On December 24, the team attempted to resume its work but was not allowed to leave the village for 90 minutes. Buth said the quartet’s car was stopped at an environmental checkpoint where they were told to wait for a senior official to reach the spot.
“We were not questioned, just stopped there. One official walked around our car and took photos,” he said.
Governor Sopheana yesterday said that local authorities had never been informed the CCHR crew would be performing activities in the district, which is why they were summoned to district headquarters.
“We want to know what they are doing. I waited for them two days, but they didn’t come. We did not interfere with their work,” Sopheana said.
Pan Morakat, head of the provincial environment department, added that the stopping of the CCHR car was not out of the ordinary as the group was crossing the Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary. It was not an “illegal detention”, he said.
“Anyone, who crosses the protected area without information, needs to be checked,” he said. “Some people come here to commit wildlife and forestry crimes.”
But Moeun Tola, head of labour advocacy group Central, said there was no article in the constitution or existing legislation that required a registered NGO to obtain permission before carrying out interviews or conducting site visits.
“In my mind, this was a violation of their rights by the police. The Cambodian constitution should be respected and not be based on arbitrary verbal orders by local officials,” he said.
For its part, CCHR said the incident was linked to the “escalating crackdown on fundamental freedoms” of civil society groups over the past year, adding that severe restrictions were being placed on the work of NGOs.
“We call on the relevant local authorities in the area to immediately cease all threats and harassment against members of civil society, as well as attempts to illegitimately interfere with their work,” read the statement, which was signed by five other civil society groups.