The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday morning opened proceedings in the defamation trial against the deputy publisher of the Cambodia Daily, but deferred the conclusion of the hearing after procedural issues arose.
Deborah Krisher-Steele, deputy publisher of the now-shuttered newspaper, was sued by the Tax Department last September. The department took exception to allegations from Krisher-Steele that it had leaked a confidential tax document to the media and that its audit of the newspaper had been politically motivated.
The Daily stopped publishing after it failed to meet a 30-day deadline to pay a $6.3 million tax bill, with the issue escalating into a public fight between it and the Tax Department, following the leak of a document to government mouthpiece Fresh News.
The trial, which Krisher-Steele did not attend, began with defence lawyer Ham Sunrith saying that his client had not received a summons for the case. But Prosecutor Keo Sokunthea insisted that it had been delivered to the defendant, with Judge Seng Leang siding with the prosecutor and allowing the proceedings to continue.
Tax Department Deputy Director Vann Puthipol, who is the complainant, was represented by his colleague, Heng Narith, who presented a statement on behalf of the department.
He claimed Krisher-Steele spoke to media outlets in late August alleging the Tax Department had leaked the document, breaching confidentiality, and characterising the tax probe as politically motivated. “The Tax Department is a law enforcement institution and follows the regulations, and no documents were leaked by the department. These accusations have affected the reputation of the Tax Department,” Narith said.
On the night of August 4, Fresh News published the leaked tax document, hours after it was posted on former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith’s Facebook page. Chanrith has claimed he did not have control of his Facebook page at the time because it had been hacked.
“The GDT [General Department of Taxation] is not involved in politics. The GDT collects all taxes from all media outlets and individuals who are entitled to pay,” he said.
The court adjourned the hearing until April 12 because Krisher-Steele’s statement, provided by the defence, had not been translated by official translators. Judge Leang gave her lawyers until then to re-submit the statement.
These are not the first procedural issues faced in the case, with Krisher-Steele having lost one of her lawyers, Sek Sophorn, for not having the requisite documents authorising him to legally represent her.