The Phnom Penh Municipal Court again delayed a defamation trial against Cambodia Daily Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele on Thursday, with the presiding judge saying he needed time to consider the grounds for the complaint and a defence motion to summons the government-aligned online news outlet Fresh News.
The trial, which resumed Thursday after it was postponed on March 22, is in relation to a defamation case filed by the General Department of Taxation against Krisher-Steele for alleging that the tax body had leaked a confidential document and that a $6.3 million tax bill was politically motivated.
The independent Cambodia Daily closed in September after receiving the unaudited tax bill from the tax department, which came in the midst of a government crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party, NGOs and media organisations.
Presiding Judge Seng Leang said he needed time to deliberate on a defence request asking for Fresh News, which published the leaked tax document, to be summonsed in the case. After a short deliberation, Leang said he needed additional time to consider the request.
“The case is complicated to summon Fresh News,” he said. "It could affect the professionalism of the journalists and so we will discuss this later.”
The short hearing also deliberated on the grounds for the defamation complaint. The Tax Department’s legal team initially said the complaint was filed because Krisher-Steele spoke to Radio Free Asia alleging that the Tax Department had leaked the document and that it was a politically motivated case.
However, once defence lawyers Hem Sunrith and Sek Sophorn started questioning where the leak came from, Mao Samvutheary said the leaks were not the basis for the complaint.
“For the leaks we did not file a complaint on that. We filed the complaint on the defamation of the General Department of Taxation,” she said. “So we filed the complaint against her because she accused us regarding the shutting down of the Daily.”
Before the hearing was suspended, a statement from Krisher-Steele was read out in court in which she said she responded to the tax document leak only after the Tax Department itself had discussed the dispute with local media, despite being restricted by confidentiality clauses governing the department.
“I am in fact the victim in this case because GDT did not respect the Law on Taxation and violated the confidentiality of my tax document which led to the closure of my business and this untrue defamation case,” she said in the statement.
The judge has not announced when the trial will resume.