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
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."