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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Court reporter ban eases

Court reporter ban eases

The Phnom Penh municipal court has backed away from an announcement banning journalists

from entering the court compound, after criticism by national media associations.

Days after the October 21 order, journalists were allowed to enter the court but

were asked to leave cameras or tape recorders with a guard stationed at the entrance

of the compound. A ban on broadcasting equipment was not mentioned in the October

21 order.

The order, signed by new court director Chev Keng, chief prosecutor Ouk Savuth and

chief clerk Heng Bophea, stated: "All journalists are not allowed to cover information

inside the courthouse compound, which has small rooms and many guests."

Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said the announcement

was "strange" because it violated the freedom of the press, echoing the

criticism of several journalist clubs.

"We have appealed to [Chev Keng] to change his mind," Samithy said. "We

will not walk backwards, we have to struggle to get information."

On November 1, a security guard told the Post that journalists would have to request

permission from Chev Keng each time they wanted to enter the court to cover a case.

He allowed a Cambodian journalist into the compound to see the order on a notice

board in front of the courtrooms, but denied access to a foreign reporter, saying

new court boss Chev Keng was inside.

Despite the court being officially closed for the public holiday, six handcuffed

suspects were led inside by police in the space of approximately 20 minutes.

The guard refused to give his name, but demanded Post journalists give their names.

When questioned why he wanted reporters' names, the guard became irate and told the

two reporters to go away.

On November 2, a different Cambodian journalist went to the court and was allowed

to enter, but was asked to leave any cameras or tape recorders at the guard hut.

Notebooks and pens were allowed into the courtroom.

"What I am doing is respecting an order. If I don't do so, I will be fired,"

said a police officer standing guard outside the court. "I have to check all

journalists carefully from now on."

A security guard said that the court director was preparing an official entrance

pass for journalists.

Om Chandara, president of the newly-founded Khmer Journalists Friendship Association,

said there can be no restriction of journalists' access to the court because the

media has it own press law already in place.

"What the court is doing is not correct. They are closing down the freedom of

the press," Chandara said.

He said it would be dangerous for journalists to write stories without audio or photographic

evidence of what happened in court.

Ang Vong Vathana, Minister of Justice, said the order was not meant to ban journalists

from the court, but was intended to keep order and stop journalists from harassing

suspects and court staff.

Vathana said Keng told him that previously some journalists had entered the offices

of investigating judges and prosecutors without permission, and "took information

disorderly."

"I support [Chev Keng's] idea to keep order. The courthouse is not like the

fish market," Vathana said.

He added that journalists walking around the small compound - used mostly as a car

park for court staff - were taking up the limited space.

Some physical changes have also taken place at the court. Sheets of metal were added

to the court's fence about the same time the order was released, blocking the view

from the street.

The office of a court monitor with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner

for Human Rights is in the process of being moved from its current position next

to the front courtroom to the side of the compound.

Hanrot Raken, general prosecutor at the Court of Appeals, said the order was an internal

regulation of the Phnom Penh municipal court and does not apply to all courts. He

said that in the past journalists had not disturbed trials.

"But in some defamation suits, the accused do not want a journalist taking their

picture. It would amount to being shamed in public," Raken said.

While previous guidelines displayed in English and Khmer already restricted cameras

and tape recorders from the courtroom, photographers were able to take photos through

the open windows. Some journalists smuggled tape recorders into the court.

The new restrictions apply to the entire court compound, not just the courtroom.

Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information, said courts across the world ban cameras

and tape recorders during trials. Kanharith said they are allowed outside the court

after the proceedings are finished.

"I think the new court director adopts the style of the courts worldwide. Previously,

only Cambodian courts allowed journalists to take pictures or record voices in the

courthouse," Kanharith said.

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