TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP
Dam Sith, editor of Sam Rainsy Party-affiliated newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer, is escorted by military police to a car at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 8.
International rights groups have blasted the arrest of Sam Rainsy Party newspaper editor and parliamentary candidate Dam Sith as part of a systematic pattern of intimidation by the government against opposition members ahead of next month's general election.
Sith, the editor-in-chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, was arrested on June 8 and charged with defamation and disinformation over an April 18 article that quoted opposition leader Sam Rainsy as linking senior leaders of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, to the Khmer Rouge.
"Dam Sith's arrest demonstrates how the criminal justice system is used and abused to silence government critics," said Brittis Edman, a researcher for Amnesty International, which issued a joint statement with Human Rights Watch on June 11 demanding better press freedoms.
"His arrest sends a message of fear to journalists and other media workers in the lead-up to national elections next month," she added.
The statement adds to a growing chorus of outrage over Sith's arrest, with critics accusing the government of using out of date legislation against journalists.
The 1995 Press Law provides for some protection of journalists but is rarely used.
Instead, the so-called 1992 UNTAC Law, Cambodia's current penal code, is used in most legal cases against journalists or media representatives. These cases, according to rights groups, often violate the right to freedom of expression.
"Arrests and other politically motivated legal actions are being used to intimidate, coerce and silence opposition members and journalists," said Sara Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"With elections pending, it's crucial that Cambodians are able to receive information from a variety of news sources, and that opposition candidates are able to campaign without fear of reprisals," she added.
Shortly after Sith's arrest, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith questioned whether Sith should be held pending trial, pointing out that defamation had been decriminalized and requesting his release by Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Kanharith's undersecretary of state, Thieng Vandarong, said June 11 that the Ministry of Information had received no reply from the court and did not expect to.
"Our letter was just to pave the way for the victim and his lawyer to work toward his freedom," Vandarong said.
Lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, the executive director of the Cambodian Defender's Project, also said that Sith should be released pending trial because of the confusion over which law he should be charged under.
"If we look at the UNTAC law, with which the government is taking legal action, there is a loophole that allows for different interpretations," Sam Oeun said.
"In a democratic country, when there is a legal loophole, the benefit of the doubt should go to the accused."
Nam Hong's attorney Ka Savuth declined to comment.