LOCAL and international human rights groups have lashed out at the two-year sentence handed down to freelance journalist Ros Sokhet by Phnom Penh Municipal Court last week, describing it as an “outrageous misuse” of a criminal lawsuit.
In a hearing Friday, judge Chhay Kong sentenced Ros Sokhet, 40, to two years in prison after convicting him of spreading disinformation by sending disparaging text messages to Soy Sopheap, a well-known CTN anchor.
The following day, the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) issued a statement saying it was “deeply dismayed” by the sentence, as well as the fact that the court chose to prosecute Ros Sokhet under the Kingdom’s 1992 UNTAC Law rather than the more lenient Press Law, passed in 1995.
On Friday, the court heard that Ros Sokhet’s messages, sent on October 8 and 28, accused Soy Sopheap of demanding hush money from Khay Dara, a woman arrested for firing a pistol during a traffic dispute in September, in exchange for keeping her story out of the news. The journalist admitted to the court that he had sent the messages, but claims he was only alerting Soy Sopheap to rumours already in circulation.
Ros Sokhet is the third person to have been imprisoned in a legal crackdown that has seen over 10 journalists and critics sued for defamation or disinformation by senior government officials since April.
On Sunday, observers criticised the terms of Ros Sokhet’s sentence and questioned that the text messages, which were never made public, could be used to mount a case for his imprisonment.
“The sentence is unjust and disproportional to his offence. It violates the Press Law and the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.“His text messages were wrong, but he should not be imprisoned.”
Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the case would only “reinforce the chilling effect” of the recent string of lawsuits against government critics.
“This year has already seen one person convicted for writing slogans on the walls of his house protesting his own eviction; now it’s text messages.”
Sok Dara, a lawyer from the Cambodia Defenders Project who represented Ros Sokhet, agreed on the primacy of the 1995 Press Law and requested that its articles replace the harsher terms of the 1992 UNTAC criminal code.
CAPJ’s Deputy Director Sam Rithy Doung Hak said the two-year sentence was an indication the government was continuing to take “a heavy-handed” approach to critics, but was unsure if the recently passed Penal Code – which is set to replace the UNTAC Law – would stem the tide of defamation convictions.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to comment after the verdict was handed down on Friday.