Criminal suits against journalists must be halted.
FROM outside the fence of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, passersby clearly see and recognise Ros Sokhet as a criminal indistinguishable from others in his blue- and white-striped prison uniform.
He is waiting to be prosecuted for a crime he is alleged to have committed. However, unlike other criminals who have been put on trial and convicted of murder, rape or robbery, Sokhet has not murdered, raped or robbed anyone. His crime, like that of many other journalists arrested and sent to jail before him, is for expressing opinions that the court considers “disinformation”.
And unlike other journalists who have been charged and convicted of “defamation”, “disinformation” or “incitement”, in recent lawsuits filed by the government, Ros Sokhet’s case has been based on a unique and unlikely complaint made by another Khmer journalist. He has been charged with disinformation for telling his fellow journalist that people have accused him of extorting money from someone.
However, Ros Sokhet’s case is just one of an increasing number of lawsuits brought against journalists in recent years, particularly for exercising their freedom of speech. In October 2005, Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando and Voice of Democracy radio programme director Pa Nguon Teang were imprisoned along with other government critics for criticising border agreements signed with Vietnam.
Two years later, more journalists were targeted with legal actions. Samleng Yuvachun Khmer newspaper publisher Keo Sothear was charged with defamation
for criticising the governor of the then-Sihanoukville municipality, while the editors of Sralanh Khmer newspaper, Thach Keth and You Saravuth, were respectively charged with libel and defamation over articles alleging the involvement of government officials in land-grabbing.
After a wave of criminal lawsuits and prosecution of journalists for defamation, disinformation and incitement, the opposition-aligned publications have disappeared from the newsstands one after another.
While Sralanh Khmer newspaper switched sides and became pro-government, Moneaksekar Khmer was shut down altogether after editor Dam Sith, who was facing a devastating criminal lawsuit, apologised to the government and promised to cease his newspaper’s publication.
Dam Sith was arrested in June 2009 on charges of libel and false information that were brought against him by the Cambodian foreign minister, Hor Namhong.
In the same month, Hang Chakra, publisher of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, was jailed after receiving a one-year prison sentence as a result of government complaint about articles accusing the deputy prime minister of corrupt practices.
As the lawsuits against journalists and government critics mount, questions have been raised about Cambodia’s commitment to upholding democracy and human rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Article 31 of the Constitution states: “The Kingdom of Cambodia shall recognise and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the covenants and conventions related to human rights, women’s and children’s rights.”
All these international conventions, particularly the Universal Declaration, include a specific reference to press freedom and freedom of speech.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
To further assert Cambodia’s obligations, Article 41 of the Constitution explicitly states: “Khmer citizens shall have freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly.... The regime of the media shall be determined by law.”
However, this is where all the problems arise. Despite the adoption of the Press Law in 1995, which gives greater freedoms and protection to journalists, it has almost never been used. Article 20 of this law says: “No person shall be arrested or subject to criminal charges as result of expression of opinion.” Yet, the government has continued to file criminal lawsuits against journalists for expressing their opinions. Without much investigation, the court would immediately rule in favor of the government by using the outdated UNTAC Penal Code of 1992, despite Article 21 of the Press Law saying that “all previous provisions related to the press shall be abrogated”.
Facing such legal threats and intimidation, many journalists are forced to exercise self-censorship by not reporting sensitive, important stories that may lead them into trouble. On the other hand, democratic media principles forbid the use of criminal legal actions against journalists for doing their professional job to fulfill the public’s right to know.
Mouen Chhean Nariddh is a veteran journalist and the director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies in Phnom Penh.