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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Fight' knocked out of circulation

'Fight' knocked out of circulation

O PPOSITION newspaper Prayuth (Fight) has been suspended by the government, the first

such closure since Hun Sen appealed for the opposition press to restart their presses

following the July fighting.

"The closure of my newspaper is not fair. Hun Sen [said] he is a democrat, but

in fact when we criticized him more and more, he oppressed us," said a Prayuth

assistant editor, who requested anonymity.

The Ministry of Information slapped a 30-day suspension on Prayuth, accusing it of

exaggerating the casualty figures on the government side from the battle for the

northern anti-Hun Sen resistance base of O'Smach.

The action was taken under provisions in the Press Law, passed last year after much

criticism from journalism and human rights groups, which make it an offense to publish

articles which affect "national security" or "political stability".

The opposition press disappeared virtually overnight after Hun Sen launched a military

attack on Funcinpec military leaders on July 5, most of their journalists fleeing

to Thailand. After the fighting, the Second Prime Minister personally appealed for

anti-government newspapers to re-open, pledging that they had nothing to fear from

criticizing him.

Prayuth - one of about 10 opposition papers which resumed publication - attracted

the Ministry of Information's action for reporting that 200 government soldiers had

been killed and 500 injured in the fight for O'Smach.

Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith said this week that the newspaper

had exaggerated the casualty figures, publishing misinformation aimed to demoralize

the government's troops.

The real number of government soldiers killed in the northern fighting was less than

50, with about 100 wounded, Kanharith said.

He also said that Prayuth had falsely reported that one of the commanders on the

government side - former Khmer Rouge Phon Pheap - had been killed.

Resistance chiefs have repeatedly claimed that Phon Pheap - a former KR who defected

to Funcinpec and then aligned with the CPP in mid-June - was killed in a B40 rocket

attack near O'Smach several weeks ago. The reports were disproved when he appeared

in public this month, turning up at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to negotiate

with a group of his former guerrillas protesting at their lack of pay from the government.

Kanharith, asked about Hun Sen's appeal for opposition journalists to return to Phnom

Penh, said that newspapers are allowed to criticize the government but must not breach

the Press Law.

The Ministry of Information had filed a complaint under the Press Law to the Phnom

Penh municipal court against Prayuth, he said. The court's deputy director, Judge

Nop Sophon, said the prosecutor had 4 to 6 months to investigate and decide whether

to pursue the case.

In a statement published in another opposition newspaper, the editor of Prayuth,

identifying himself as On Sokhom, defended his paper's "journalistic professionalism".

Accusing Hun Sen of attempting to "camouflage the O'Smach military failure",

Sokhom said he believed the real government casualty numbers were higher than his

newspaper had reported.

A Sept 16 statement issued by Funcinpec exiles in Bangkok said the closure of Prayuth

violated the Constitution and press freedom, adding that opposition newspapers which

published the truth would be dispatched to the "communist court".

"We have noted that the pro-Hun Sen papers have never been sentenced or fined

even though they had insulted some institution or insulted the King," the statement

said.

An international journalists association, Reporters Sans Frontieres, also expressed

deep concern over the suspension of Prayuth.

Chum Kanal, president of the League of Cambodian Journalists (LCJ) - which is widely

considered to be CPP-aligned - said the Ministry of Information had abided by the

Press Law in its suspension of Prayuth.

He disputed that Prayuth had been singled out unfairly, noting that the Republic

News, which had severely criticized the King, was suspended early this year.

In that case, a ministry complaint to the court was withdrawn after the LCJ helped

to arbitrate between the ministry and the Republic News. Asked whether he would intervene

on behalf of Prayuth, Kanal said he would try to if he was asked to do so by the

newspaper's editor.

About 40 newspapers are currently being published in Cambodia, including 10 'opposition'

publications, according to official figures. Before the July ouster of Prince Norodom

Ranariddh as First Prime Minister, 61 Khmer papers were registered with the Ministry

of Information.

"The recent closure of Prayuth is a sign that the freedom of expression and

democracy in Cambodia is still under pressure from the government," a journalist

from another opposition paper, Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) said this week.

He vowed that his newspaper would continue to exercise its "right to take an

opposition stance, unless it is forced to shut down by the government".

He said his paper resumed publication in early September, but claimed that other

people had fraudulently published it in July and August.

Journalists from at least four key opposition or independent newspapers, including

one published by Pin Samkhon, the co-president of the Khmer Journalists Association,

remain in voluntary exile in Thailand.

Khieu Kanharith, of the Ministry of Information, said that the newspapers which had

stopped publishing had done so because of financial problems or because their staff

had not returned to work.

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