OPPOSITION newspaper publisher Dam Sith has issued a "sincere apology" to Prime Minister Hun Sen after a government lawyer filed defamation, disinformation and incitement lawsuits against him at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday.
In a letter dated Wednesday, Dam Sith apologised to the prime minister for "serious mistakes" committed while at the helm of the opposition-aligned Moneaksekar Khmer, pledging to cease publication of the newspaper if he receives a pardon from Hun Sen.
"In the past, I repeatedly failed to act properly and seriously affected the honour of Samdech [Hun Sen] and the CPP leadership through my Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper," Dam Sith wrote.
"I am asking for the highest permission of Samdech to forgive me so that I can escape the court charges against me."
He added: "In exchange for the generosity of Samdech and the CPP leadership, I promise to discontinue the publication of Moneaksekar Khmer after I receive a pardon from Samdech."
Dam Sith received a summons Tuesday from Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Sok Kalyan, asking him to appear July 14 for questioning over a series of articles published in the newspaper earlier this year.
Sok Kalyan declined to comment when contacted on Thursday. But Long Dara, the government lawyer who filed the lawsuits, said the letter had reached Hun Sen, who ordered him to withdraw the complaints against the publisher.
"He has written a letter of apology acknowledging the mistakes he has made.... We will drop the complaint today [Thursday]," he said.
He said that since February, Moneaksekar Khmer had continually published articles that sought to "incite" conflict between government leaders.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said he was unsurprised by Dam Sith's appeal to Hun Sen and did not blame him for requesting a pardon.
"The government is now using the court to silence freedom of expression. We are not disappointed with [Dam Sith] - we have pity on him," he said.
But following the apology, and subsequent pardon, of Sam Rainsy Party lawyer Kong Sam Onn on similar charges Tuesday, civil society groups say the country is entering a critical phase in its democratic development.
Kong Sam Onn had filed a defamation lawsuit against Hun Sen on behalf of SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua in April, prompting accusations of professional misconduct by the Cambodian Bar Association and a defamation lawsuit from government lawyers.
"I think this is the beginning of the end for press freedom in Cambodia," said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
He also expressed fears the fate of Moneaksekar Khmer - one of only two opposition newspapers in Cambodia - could parallel the fate of former opposition newspaper Sralanh Khmer, which went over to the ruling party after its editor Thach Keth defected to the government in 2006.
He said, "If the editor-in-chief has apologised to the government, it is very likely he will receive a pardon from the prime minister and then either the newspaper will be shut down or it will [start] publishing as a pro-government newspaper."
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, also highlighted the Sralanh Khmer situation, but said that civil society activists were unsure about when the current crackdown will end.
"It's a growing concern that any of us could be charged and potentially thrown in jail or be pressured to join the CPP," he told the Post.
"That would be a new low, a terribly new low. The question is when it will reach the point of no return."