On the afternoon of February 24, Shen Kaidong the 51 year old editor in chief of Chinese language outlet Angkor Today was driving near Kulen mountain when his phone started to ring. He answered the phone and a stranger introduced himself in broken Chinese as an interpreter calling on behalf of the Immigration Department. He asked Shen to return home as soon as possible.
When Shen arrived at home around 17:30 there were three police cars parked outside his residence. There were more than a dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers waiting for him. They asked to be let inside.
The police took photographs of Shen Kaidong standing next to his computers and began to interrogate him. When did he come to Cambodia? When did he found Angkor Today?
Shen had stayed up late the night before. Angkor Today had received several leads from people who had received Chinese language text messages offering Covid-19 vaccinations for a $120 fee. Reporters working for Angkor Today called the number and asked for details about the offer.
The sender of the text message responded that appointments could be made now and that the vaccination would be available by the end of February. This information spread like wildfire in Chinese speaking WeChat groups. Angkor Today published an article about it on WeChat at 23:00 on February 23 titled: “Covid-19 vaccine donated by China sold for a high price”.
Reporting fake news? It appears the offer was real. If there's anything, there needs to be investigation into Calmett and other centers who are handling the Covid 19 vaccines. https://t.co/a99O4vHuGF
— Virak Ou (@ouvirak) February 24, 2021
Only hours later on the morning after, the Chinese Embassy issued an emergency notice on WeChat saying that they had received reports about the information in the Angkor Today article.
Fresh News wrote that the Cambodian Ministry of Health condemned the Angkor Today article saying that it polluted society by fabricating information to mislead the public.
The Ministry of Information revoked Angkor Today’s media license.
“Reporting fake news? It appears the offer was real. If there’s anything, there needs to be investigation into Calmett and other centers who are handling the Covid-19 vaccines”, said Ou Virak, founder of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia, on Twitter.
After interrogating Shen Kaidong the police asked him to sign and fingerprint the protocol. It was already past 20:00 and Shen asked if the police could leave. They rejected saying they would spend the night with him. Shen asked them what he had done wrong and the police told him that he would find out soon and that he would be sent to Phnom Penh the following day.
The next morning five police officers drove Shen to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap. They asked him to transfer $200 to them with his phone for escorting him.
Shen had fractured his wrist in a traffic accident and on this day he had an appointment with a doctor to change his cast. He told the police about the situation and asked them to bring him to the doctor but they refused.
His passport was with a travel agent because he needed to extend his visa. The police asked Shen to call the travel agent and urge them to bring his passport to the Immigration Department as soon as possible. An acquaintance working for the travel agent told Shen that the Immigration Department was going to deport Shen to China.
They arrived in Phnom Penh around 14:00 and the police drove Shen Kaidong straight to the National Institue of Public Health where he was tested for Covid-19. Then he was brought to the Immigration Detention Center opposite the airport and put in a cell by himself.
Falling leaves return to their roots
Around 16:00 a guard brought him a bag of clothes that a friend had brought for him to the Immigration Detention Center. The guard told him that he must quickly change his clothes so that he could be sent to China immediately.
After getting changed over a dozen police officers escorted Shen Kaidong to the airport with three cars, taking pictures of him along the way. When he arrived at his boarding gate a police officer took Shen’s phone and asked him for the code to unlock it. The police told him that he would return the phone shortly.
When Shen boarded a flight to Shanghai the police handed him his passport and took one last picture. Shen asked for his phone back but the police officer just smiled and waved to him and said: bye!
Three other men were deported on the same flight as Shen. After landing in Shanghai police boarded the plane and escorted Shen and the three other deported passengers off the plane. Upon hearing the reason why Shen had been deported they told him that they had no interest in him and that he was free to go to quarantine together with the remaining passengers. The three other deported passengers were taken away by the police.
“Cambodia’s deportation of journalist Shen Kaidong and the suppressing of his Angkor Today news outlet is a severe overreaction to a dispute over the outlet’s coverage,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalist. “Cambodian authorities must stop using flimsy ‘fake news’ charges to suppress crucial reporting on Covid-19, and should allow Shen to return to the country and work freely.”
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia has remained silent. The organization that supposedly defends journalists against human rights abuses has issued press releases since 2017 condemning charges against 12 journalists in Cambodia, 2 in the Philippines and 1 in Thailand.
There has been complete radio silence from the OPCC about the arrest and deportation of editor in chief Shen Kaidong and his Angkor Today outlet. The OPCC website lists Facebook and Twitter as the only means to contact them.
Khmer440 asked on Twitter why the OPCC has not condemned the treatment of Shen Kaidong and if the decision is racially motivated. The OPCC did not respond.
Why is @opccambodia so silent about Shen Kaidong? An editor in chief was arrested, deported and his news license canceled. The Overseas Press Club said nothing. Is it because he is Chinese?
— Khmer440.com (@khmer440) March 7, 2021
Angkor Today was a strong voice of an otherwise unheard Chinese population. It published unfiltered stories expressing the frustrations, difficulties, happiness and celebrations of Chinese people living in Cambodia.
Angkor Today did what journalism is supposed to do. It shined a light on the Chinese community and presented an interesting perspective. It gave Chinese people in Cambodia a voice.
That light has been put out; That voice has been silenced.