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Int'l watchdogs wage war of words over editor's punishment

INTERNATIONAL watchdogs have joined the chorus of criticism targeting the jailing of opposition newspaper editor Hang Chakra, who was sentenced last Friday to one year in prison after a Phnom Penh court found him guilty of spreading false information.

In a statement Tuesday, Amnesty International called for the government to "squash" the conviction of Hang Chakra and hold an immediate retrial, claiming Friday's proceedings fell short of international legal standards.

"This case demonstrates the absence of an independent judiciary in Cambodia, and the increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism within Cambodia's top echelons of power," Amnesty researcher Brittis Edman said in the statement.

Hang Chakra must be freed and then articles 62 and 63... must be amended.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Hang Chakra, editor-in-chief of the opposition-aligned Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, to a one-year prison term and fined him 9 million riels (US$2,161) for disinformation.

The case was filed in response to a series of articles published in April and May that alleged corruption on the part of officials working under Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.  

What the case showed, Edman said, was that the laws governing press freedom in the Kingdom were vague and were now being abused to "harass, intimidate and even jail" government critics.

The France-based Reporters Without Borders agreed, saying that Prime Minister Hun Sen's 2007 decision to decriminalise defamation had been effectively reversed by the use of the UNTAC Criminal Code, rather than the more liberal 1995 Press Law, which does not allow jail sentences.

"His government has now regrettably abused a law about disinformation that was inherited from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)," the group said in a statement Tuesday.

"Hang Chakra must be freed, and then Articles 62 and 63 of the criminal code bequeathed by the UN must be amended."

The two statements came following a similar request from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which said Cambodian courts should not rely on "outdated laws" to prosecute defamation cases.

Jail time for journalists

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said that a one-year jail term was disproportionate even if Hang Chakra was guilty.

"We have many ways of handling journalists when they make mistakes. We can have them make corrections when they publish disinformation," he said.

"Using the law to imprison journalists is not right."

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said international watchdogs should learn more about the particulars of the Hang Chakra case before passing judgement, adding that many journalists still lacked  "professionalism".

"International [organisations] should learn a little more about why that person is in jail, and how many articles and what type of articles were [published]," he said.

"They insulted people, they misled people."

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