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Editor to appeal sentence

Hang Chakra verdict threatens press freedoms, journalists say.

An attorney for opposition-aligned newspaper editor Hang Chakra said Sunday that they would appeal a Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruling last week that found him guilty of spreading disinformation, a decision that has prompted a storm of protest from local journalists and media organisations.

In a hearing Friday, Judge Din Sivuthy found Khmer Machas Srok News editor Hang Chakra, 55, guilty under the UNTAC Criminal Code for a series of articles he published in April and May accusing officials working under Deputy Prime Minsiter Sok An of corruption. The court then sentenced him to one  year in prison and fined him 9,000,000 riels (US$2,167).

"I will file the complaint to the Appeal Court as soon as possible. I will ask the [Appeal] Court to release my client," said Hang Chakra's lawyer Choung Chou Ngy.

"My client has not received any justice. The court focused mostly on punishing him rather than finding out the truth of the accusations."

Choung Chou Ngy said Hang Chakra was incarcerated at Prey Sar prison, adding that he was to meet with his client today to plan his appeal.

Meanwhile, the jailing of Hang Chakra has been roundly condemned by local journalists, who have decried the decision to prosecute defamation cases under the UNTAC Criminal Code rather than the Kingdom's more liberal 1995 Press Law.

Under the Press Law, publishing false information carries a fine of up to 5 million riels, but under the UNTAC law offenders face prison terms of between six months and three years and a fine of up to 10 million riels.

"[The courts] have never implemented the Press Law in the case of journalists.... They accuse them only of defamation, incitement or insults," said Dam Sith, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the opposition-aligned daily newspaper

Moneaksekar Khmer.

Dam Sith, who was detained in Prey Sar prison for a week in June 2008 for reprinting controversial comments made by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, described the arrest and detention of Hang Chakra as a "threat" to journalists who do not toe the government's line.

Sam Rithy Doung Hak, deputy director of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists,  said the Hang Chakra ruling was a case of "deja vu", drawing parallels with a similar crackdown in 2005.

"The government is taking action against whoever it considers to be its critics. It is part of the whole package of the drift towards dictatorship," he said.

Criticism from journalists

The Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ) and the Cambodia Watchdog Council also issued statements over the weekend slamming the court's decision.

However, government lawyer Suong Chanthan said he was pleased with the outcome and defended the court's decision to prosecute Hang Chakra under the UNTAC law, saying Hang Chakra had published many "false" articles, in addition to the two - printed on April 5 and May 2 this year - referenced in this case.

But other critics said the prosecution took place on shaky legal ground. Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies and veteran journalist, said the Press Law was clear in stating that no other law could be used to prosecute journalists.

"The Press Law must supersede the UNTAC Law," he said, though he added that the courts were vulnerable to abuse.

"The government still does not understand what freedom of press and freedom of expression are in a real democracy. The government knows it can do anything," he said.

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