At a conference held May 3 to mark World Press Freedom Day, Cambodia's journalist
associations expressed concern over the effect on press freedom of legal action taken
recently by government officials.
Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists (CCJ), criticized Article
306 in the newly drafted Penal Code as endangering the already vulnerable status
of the country's journalists. He said it could result in journalists going to jail
over the stories they write.
"Experience has shown that Cambodian journalists are vulnerable to defamation
lawsuits without reasonable justification," the organization noted in a written
statement. Samithy said he was worried about abuses of the code.
"Those writing articles simply should not be jailed, even if it is only for
six days," he said, referring to the penalty in Article 306 that stipulates
a jail term of between six days and three months for those found guilty of defamation.
Samithy said that journalists writing about corrupt government officials were concerned
they could be accused of defamation when in fact they were simply doing their job.
He called on the government to revise Article 306, and said he would also write to
the Constitutional Court to request it clarify which laws prosecutors should use.
In two recent court cases the judges used the older UNTAC code instead of the 1995
Press Law, which was meant to supersede it.
Secretary of State at the Ministry of Information, Khieu Kanharith, said it was up
to the courts to decide which law to use in a particular situation.
"It is not the government's decision about which law should be used. The court
is more able to decide," he said, adding that the defense lawyer had a responsibility
to ensure the correct law was applied.
He said that the government would consult with journalists about Article 306. A lack
of experience among Cambodian journalists meant that some of their stories would
likely be defamatory since many of them included their own comments in their articles.
"We cannot erase Article 306," Kanharith concluded, "but we can request
a reduction in the terms of punishment in order to balance it with the Press Law."
The CCJ also complained that a number of Cambodian journalists have experienced violence,
intimidation and detention in recent years. It said the constitutionally guaranteed
freedom of the press was not being respected.
A joint message on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day by leading international
figures blamed the "deliberate targeting" of journalists for the high number
of deaths in 2000 and 2001.
The statement by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, UNESCO's director-general, Koichiro
Matsuura, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, noted that
in each of the past two years more than 50 journalists had been killed while covering
"Increasingly, such deaths are not the result of war's accidents but the outcome
of a deliberate targeting of journalists by those seeking to prevent media exposure
of their criminal, corrupt or terrorist activities," they said.
They described freedom of the press as a guarantor of wider freedoms and warned that
the temptation by governments to impose drastic regulation on the media "must