Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - PMs' defamer: "Lucky I never wrote about robbers"

PMs' defamer: "Lucky I never wrote about robbers"

PMs' defamer: "Lucky I never wrote about robbers"

AS the King and co-Prime Ministers negotiated his release by fax machine, former

newspaper editor Chan Ratana spent seven tense days in T3 prison where he gained

a new perspective on the problems within the Kingdom from his 27 cell mates.

"The conditions of the prison inspired me to continue my struggle for the improvement

of our nation," Ratana said.

"Every prisoner admits that their acts are not proper, but they must [commit

crimes] because they need to earn a living. The leadership does not take care of

its people, and that is the problem."

Ratana said he was frightened when the guards first put him in a crowded cell.

The T3 veterans stared at the new arrival, asking: "How many years, my friend?"

and "What did you do to get in here?"

Upon learning that he had been sentenced to one year by the Supreme Court for publishing

an article in theVoice of Khmer Youth defaming the Prime Ministers, the prisoners

said they enjoyed reading his newspaper, but if he had worked for the tough-on-crime

Koh Santh-ipheap, they would have beaten him to death.

"I felt very lucky that I had never written a story about robbers," Ratana

told the Post.

King Norodom Sihanouk and his son First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh spoke

the entire week of their desire to grant Ratana amnesty, but Hun Sen's initial silence

hinted at his reluctance to support it.

After a deluge of protests to Ratana's imprisonment from human rights groups and

journalism societies in Phnom Penh and abroadt, Hun Sen eventually agreed.

"I support and follow the humble idea of Your Majesty and deeply appreciate

the amnesty Your Majesty always offers to those who have committed serious mistakes

against you," Hun Sen wrote the King.

On the day of his release, Ratana also paid respects to Sihanouk: "I must say

I am very, very grateful to our King, who gave me total amnesty, and I promise to

remember all of His Majesty's kindness forever."

The Ratana case renewed debate on the limits and abuses of freedom of expression

in Cambodia. The Supreme Court's decision came one month after Khmer Ideal publisher

Tun Bun Ly was gunned down on a Phnom Penh street.

Bun Ly, Ratana and New Liberty News editor Hen Vipheak - all members of the opposition

Khmer Nation Party (KNP) - had each been charged with defamation. Vipheak left the

country shortly after Ratana's conviction, but it is unclear if he has fled to avoid


Ratana's problems began 18 months ago after he published an article severely critical

of the Prime Ministers titled: "Samdech Krom Preah [Ranariddh] is more stupid

than Samdech Hun Sen three times a day."

Written in the form of a letter from a young farm girl who had fallen in love with

Ranariddh, the article accused the First Prime Minister of greed, political ineptness

and allowing Hun Sen to maintain the real power within the government.

"If someday Hun Sen wishes to overthrow Prince Ranariddh, he need only use his

smallest finger to effortlessly push [the Prince] down and break him like glass,"

the article said.

It concluded that the Cambodian people had become disillusioned with politics after

the 1993 elections because Ranarridh's Funcinpec party had proved to be as corrupt

as the incumbent CPP.

A municipal court convicted Ratana of disinformation and defamation under Articles

62 and 63 of UNTAC law, sentencing him to one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.

An appeals court dropped the charge of disinformation, but upheld the defamation

conviction and sentence.

Kong Sam Onn, Ratana's lawyer from the Cambodian Defenders Project, appealed again

and on June 28 he argued for the last time in front of five judges of the Supreme


Sam Onn said the prosecution never proved the article defamed a public figure, which

required malicious intent as well as disregard for the truth, and argued that the

UNTAC law should be superseded by the new Press Law.

The more lenient Press Law states: "No person shall be arrested or subject to

criminal charges as the result of the expression of opinion." Although the article

was printed while the UNTAC law was in effect, Sam Onn said the new law should be

applied retroactively to the case.

After the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict and police hauled Ratana off to

T3, Sam Onn complained that the prosecution did not even fully present their case.

"The prosecution said nothing except that the Supreme Court should uphold the

verdict of the appeals court," he said. "The presumption of innocence is

not the practice of the legal system in Cambodia."

Amnesty International called Ratana "a prisoner of conscience", and the

US-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared that his jailing posed "a

grave threat to the continued viability of press freedom in Cambodia".

The Khmer Journalist Association (KJA) said the court's decision violated Cambodians'

contitutional right to "freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly."

Ratana predicted before the trial that the verdict would go against him, alleging

heavy government influence in the courts.

"The plot to throw me into prison was very well planned," he said. "What

they are trying to find is a proper reason [for my conviction] to mask the political

motivation of the ruling power."

The lack of judicial independence, along with corruption, has been a continuing concern

to international donors and the United Nations.

"It is obvious there are huge problems in the judicial system," said Thomas

Hammarberg, the UN special representative on human rights in Cambodia. "I hope

this is an area that will be given urgent priority within the government."

However, the Cambodian press is widely criticized as inexperienced and unprofessional,

and some journalists often use the power of the press to advance their own political


Although King Sihanouk granted amnesty to Ratana, his press releases and letters

to the Ranariddh and Hun Sen were careful to emphasize that the former editor had

"committed against both Prime Ministers undeniably serious mistakes".

"The headline of the article is already a very grave and unfair insult toward

[Ranariddh]," the King wrote. "The rights of the press also imply that

there are responsibilities to accomplish. As long as our journalists only fight for

their rights and not their responsibilities it will be difficult to help them."

Pin Samkhon, president of the KJA and editor of the Khmer Independent newspaper,

condemned the court's ruling but also criticized Ratana's decision to print the article.

"I think [Cambodian journalists] need some training," he said. "This

kind of writing - mixing fact and opinion - is a Cambodian tradition, but I think

this is wrong. Writers at the Voice of Khmer Youth must try to practice more professionalism."

Ratana said his four-page newspaper does not clearly define what is news and what

is opinion due to lack of space. He acknowledged that this may confuse a reader,

but said the paper is filling a vital role as a voice against government corruption.

"Many Cambodian people find it difficult to separate news information and presentation

of opinion," he said. "Cambodian people have suffered from civil war and

dictatorship for a long time, so they are surprised at any newspaper who dares to

be critical of the government."

Voice of Khmer Youth supports Sam Rainsy's KNP, but Ratana said the paper does not

receive funding from the political party. Although there may not be any direct financial

help, Samkhon said the paper and others align themselves too closely with the KNP.

Both Tun Bun Ly and Ratana became members of the KNP steering committee after leaving

their newspaper jobs.

After leaving prison, Ratana said he would remain active within the KNP, and if given

the opportunity, would even concider running for a seat in the National Assembly

in 1998.

Opposition papers are not the only publications caught up in politics. Other newspapers

which support the government receive lucrative advertising contracts from pro-government

businesses, Samkhon said.

"I try, but it is difficult to be independent," Samkhon said. "The

doors close every time I go to businesses seeking advertisements because most businesses

have agreements with the government."

Samkhon said journalists in the provinces are even more influenced by the government,

and that the only truly unbiased reporting comes from a small group of publications

within Phnom Penh.

Samkhon said the KJA wants to work with the government to help provide "real

reporters" for Cambodia, but the Supreme Court's decision to jail Ratana shows

that the government would rather force journalists to subdue their writings.

"If the government helps, our objectives will be reached very soon. But even

without their cooperation, they cannot stop our progress."


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