T HE Phnom Penh judge who slapped a five million riel fine and a years jail on
New Liberty News editor-in-chief Hen Vypheak said his decision was made
Ya Sokorn - who also ordered the paper be shut down - told
the Post that he was under no outside pressure to find Vypheak
Sokorn also said it was his own decision to sentence Vypheak with
both a hefty fine and custody, one he based on the UNTAC law that provided up to
a three year jail term and a ten million riel fine.
"I judged according
to the law. If I said something inaccurate or had I misinterpreted the case, my
counselors would have disagreed."
When asked whether his court was
independent, he said: "Mmmm... yes."
Vypheak's case was the second on
what proved to be a bad weekend for the Cambodian press with the
The day before, Thun Bun Ly, the editor-in-chief of the Khmer
Ideal was sentenced to pay a five million riel fine, and his newspaper was also
shut down, for an article headlined "Don't Bark Again, Prime Ministers,"
published on Oct 31, 1994. Vypeak was convicted for a Feb 6, 1995 article
headlined: "Cambodia: Country of Thieves" and a cartoon showing Second Premier
Hun Sen holding a gun at the head of First Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
King Norodom Sihanouk, meanwhile, petitioned Prime Ministers Prince
Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen to reduce the verdicts.
In a letter dated
May 22, the King said he would like to favor these two editors and their
publications. It is not known what response, if any yet, the King's letter had
on the government.
A senior government official, Information Ministry
State Secretary Khieu Kanharith said that the two sentences were "rather
"I don't think the government should jail the journalists or
shut down their papers... I think that they should only fine, and if [the
reporters] continue to insult or report untruthfully, then they should be fined
again or suspended," Kanharith said.
However, he said many local
journalists - and he specified six editors, including both Vypheak and Bun Ly -
were lacking professionalism.
Vypheak complained that his sentence was
very severe for what were articles of opinion.
"The judge considered my
case as criminal. It is not right, it is against the country's democratic
principles," said Vypheak, who along with Bun Ly, would be appealing both
conviction and sentence.
"It's insane what the Phnom Penh Municipal Court
did," he said.
"You see, they did not consider my pleas or any suggestion
on my part. They did what they had already been told to do," he
"They had already prepared and decided my case. It had nothing to
do with my defendant."
"I am being accused of expressing my opinion to
spoil the government. I understand that to express the opinion can be right or
"But what I expressed in my newspaper was basically the reality
of our society. The people understood it," Vypheak said.
defender, Touch Bora, said the judge's decision was "very far" from a fair one,
but he could not comment on whether the court's verdict was an independent
"As you know, ours is a young democratic country which emerged from
communism where the judicial system is not beyond the control of the government.
Perhaps this still has not yet changed and the judicial system is not 100 per
cent fair," he said.
Pin Samkhon, the President of Kampuchea Journalist
Association (KJA), said the UNTAC law seemed contrary to the Cambodian
Samkhon said "the people can express their opinion, and not
be convicted as criminals according to our constitution."
expressed opinion was not true, newspapers should be asked to respond, and then
possibly apologize before further civil action was warranted, he said.
said the court's decision on both verdicts was too severe and violated the
constitutional principle of the country.
He said he thought it was okay
for newspapers to be fined if found guilty of defamation, however such high
fines could be intimidatory and stop others from printing valid
International and local human rights groups were quick to
criticize the editors' sentences as contrary to freedom of speech.
Watch Human Rights said the government's action on the freedom of expression was
"one of the most serious assaults.