A pro-Sam Rainsy Party newspaper editor has been arrested for defamation over reports tying powerful Cambodian People's Party members, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, to Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Dam Sith, editor-in-chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, was detained on June 8, but some government officials are questioning his arrest, including Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who told the Post on June 9 that authorities had "no clear reason to detain him."
“I signed a letter asking that Dam Sith be freed as soon as possible," Kanharith said, adding that the government had no role in the arrest.
The matter was “a personal lawsuit between Hor Namhong and Dam Sith,” he said.
Sith has been charged with "defamation" and "disinformation" over an April 18 article in which he quoted opposition leader Sam Rainsy as linking CPP members to the Khmer Rouge, whose 1975-79 regime resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people and the devastation of Cambodia.
Hor Namhong has denied any ties, and has filed lawsuits against both Rainsy and Sith, who was questioned in Municipal Court earlier this month.
Sith's attorney, Kong Sam On, said that the court has yet to reply to Kanharith's request, while Ke Sakhorn, deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and investigating judge Chhay Kong declined to comment.
Human rights monitors and free press advocates say the arrest is a threat to journalism in Cambodia, and question why Sith can be detained for the alleged defamation.
In May 2006, the National Assembly decriminalized defamation and mandated that all disputes related to the charge be settled through civil lawsuits, not imprisonment.
“The arrest of Dam Sith is a threat to the free press in Cambodia. Dam Sith does not deserve to be arrested because he can publish a correction in his newspaper,” said Chan Saveth of the Cambodian rights organization Adhoc.
“This case clearly shows that the politicians have influence over the courts," he said, adding that Sith was seized by about 10 uniformed and plainclothes military policemen in a Phnom Penh car wash and was being detained at Prey Sar prison.
The International Federation of Journalists and the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists have also called for the immediate release of their colleague.
The IFJ condemned the charges as unlawful and raised concerns over the effect “such harassment of journalists” might have on elections.
“Democracy cannot prevail where the media is hampered in its efforts to report on politics and the election campaign. Journalists must be able to report freely without fear of arrest or harassment,” an IFJ statement read.
Sith is also an SRP parliamentary candidate standing in the July 27 elections with hopes of representing Phnom Penh.