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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Presumed guilt could taint KRT

Presumed guilt could taint KRT

The monumental task of ensuring fair trials for remaining Khmer Rouge leaders may

be compounded by media outlets which observers believe opens under a longstanding

presumption of guilt.

Recent tribunal coverage has raised concern among court officials and leading members

of the Cambodian press who are worried that premature speculation may fuel unrealistic

public expectations-and that impartial or inaccurate reporting could jeopordize justice.

Many are asking whether an allegedly State-controlled media, operating under the

specter of defamation law, can provide the accurate and impartial coverage that a

highly complex and politically charged event such as the ECCC requires.

"This is a new chapter in Cambodian journalism," said Puy Kea, veteran

journalist and board member of the Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ). "The

media has a big job ahead of it."

According to legal experts, the presumption of innocence is one of the fundamental

legal principles of fair trial rights -but in a nation where nearly every citizen

can claim to be a victim, emotions run deep.

"The public has already judged the Khmer Rouge leaders who could be potential

suspects, not on legal grounds but on historical, experiential grounds," said

attorney Theary Seng, director of the Center for Social Development (CSD).

"The defense will have a field day with this."

Now, the concern is that the media as well as the public has already presumed the

guilt of certain potential suspects.

The front page of a leading Khmer-language newspaper on July 20 ran the headline

"Five Khmer Rouge Leaders Accused in the Introductory Submission." Underneath,

were five grainy headshots of what many have long considered "the usual suspects.'

In the United Kingdom, experts said, this could violate the Contempt of Court Act

which states "contempt is committed by any publication which creates a substantial

risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously

impeded or prejudiced. It would certainly be raised by the defense.

An introductory submission is by law a confidential document. In recognition of the

"need to ensure the public is duly informed," the ECCC co-prosecutors published

a summery of the document on July 19. No names were revealed to protect the "presumption

of innocence of the suspects."

"It is irresponsible for any paper to speculate on who is to be tried when the

court has not confirmed this information," said influential CTN news analyst

Soy Sopheap.

The paper has denied wrong-doing, arguing that nowhere in the article is it stated

that the five people in the front-page photographs have been accused by the ECCC.

"We published the photographs simply to inform our readership that these five

people are the only remaining Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive," said

deputy editor-in-chief of the paper, Teav Sarakmony.

The names of "senior leaders" of the Khmer Rouge have long been in the

public domain, said Anne Heindel, a legal advisor at the Documentation Centre of

Cambodia (DC-Cam), which compounds the difficulty of ensuring the media will prosecute

prematurely in the court of public opinion.

"The general assumption that it is those people [named in the media] who will

be prosecuted," she said. "For example, Nuon Chea himself assumes he is

a suspect."

Widespread assumptions of guilt could raise expectations and, in the long run, seriously

harm the hybrid tribunal.

"Legal responsibility is a very different thing from moral responsibility as

it has to be proved," said Heindel. "This whole trial is about managing

expectations."

The public's expectation that the individuals named in local and international newspapers

will be both charged and found guilty is unfounded, said Heindel. If there is not

sufficient evidence to make a legal charge stick, even the most allegedly notorious

suspects could walk.

"It would be very difficult to explain this to the Cambodian public," said

Heindel. "There needs to be a lot of work done over the next year to explain

the rights of the defense. The defense is not a role people have seen in the domestic

judicial process, so to see it in this context, when people have committed the worst

of all crimes, will be hard to understand. Everyone thinks 'they are guilty - why

not just list their crimes and be done with it.'"

According to Heindel, the ECCC needs to work with the media to ensure the court's

message is getting through.

The press, civil society and the NGO community are tasked with "managing"

the public expectations, said CSD's Seng.

But CTN's Sopheap said it would be the public's opinion of the court, not their expectations

of guilty verdicts, which would change.

"The Cambodian people know that Nuon Chea was Brother Number Two during the

Khmer Rouge regime," said Sopheap. "If the court does not find him guilty

then there will be a suggestion that the court is weak."

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