A Cambodian journalist who wrote on environmental issues and exposed widespread illegal logging has been found murdered in the boot of his car, according to police officials on Wednesday.
Hang Serie Oudom, 44, a reporter at the Vorakchun Khmer Daily was found on Tuesday, explained police officer Song Bunthanorm. The car had been abandoned in a cashew nut plantation in the northern Ratanakiri province.
"It is not a robbery case. It is a murder," confirmed the officer, adding that the victim had suffered blows to the head with a weapon, likely to be an axe.
Vorakchun Khmer Daily’s editor-in-chief Rin Ratanak explained that the reporter, who had been missing since Sunday evening, “wrote stories about forest crimes involving business people and powerful officials in the province."
"Most of his stories were about illegal logging of luxury wood," he added.
According to UN reports, illegal logging resulted in a huge reduction in Cambodia’s forest cover, which dropped from 73% in 1990 to 57% in 2010.
Fear’s for Oudom’s safety
Local journalists had expressed concern for Oudom’s safety after he wrote a series of stories focusing on illegal logging and the resultant smuggling of timber.
The latest story, posted on the paper’s website on September 6, included allegations that a military police commander’s son had been smuggling logs in military vehicles and extorting money from others who were legally transporting wood.
Provincial coordinator for The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, Pen Bonnar said: "Before he was murdered, other journalists had warned him not to write critically about the forest crimes."
He described the province as a “dangerous area” for journalists and environmental activisits exposing forest criminals.
"We are really worried for the journalists and activists who are working to protect the forest," he told AFP, adding "there are a lot of serious forest crimes in the province."
He explained that the practice of illegal logging is linked to particularly rich and powerful figures in the region.
The government has been criticised for enabling influential companies to clear vast stretches of land in a bid to stimulate economic growth. The land is used for everything from rubber and sugar cane plantations to hydropower dams.
Harsh Control of Environmentalists
The Cambodian government has been criticised for its harsh control of the media, particularly environmental journalists and activists.
In April, Chhut Vuthy, a prominent environmentalist, was shot dead by military police after he refused to hand over photographs of logging in the southwestern Koh Kong provine.
Vuthy had campaigned for community patrols to monitor forest areas in an attempt to deter criminals. These patrols had burnt stocks of timber worth tens of thousands of dollars in a bid to prevent the criminals from benefiting from the illegal logging.
Following Vuthy's death, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a freeze on new land grants. The step has been welcomed by environmentalists, although many believe that the measure will not save forest areas already under threat.
Watchdogs have reported that environmental journalists tend to face dangers while carrying out their work in the region, as governments and influential organisations are often implicated in illegal activities.
Sources: AFP, RSF