Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of Hang Chakra, the editor of the daily Khmer Machas Srok (http:// kmsblog.wordpress.com/), who was jailed on 26 June 2009 after receiving a one-year prison sentence as a result of government complaint about articles accusing the deputy prime minister of corrupt practices.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen took the historic decision to decriminalize defamation, but his government has now regrettably abused a law about disinformation that was inherited from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC),” Reporters Without Borders said. “Hang Chakra must be freed and then articles 62 and 63 of the criminal code bequeathed by the UN must be amended.”
The press freedom organisation added: “It is shocking that the government’s ministers decided to refer this matter to the courts without first requesting a right of reply in the newspaper.”
This is the first time that a journalist has been jailed since June 2008, when Dam Sith, the managing editor of the opposition daily Moneaksekar Khmer, spent a week in prison after being accused by the foreign minister of disseminating false information.
The complaint against Hang Chakra – over a series of articles in April and May accusing Deputy Prime Minister Sok An of corruption – was heard in the editor’s absence. The one-year jail sentence and a fine of 1,500 euros were imposed at the end of a trial lasting just one hour. The police then arrested Hang Chakra and took him to the capital’s Prey Sar prison.
His lawyer, Chong Cho Ngy, told Reporters Without Borders he would file an appeal. “I still do not understand why the judge refused to try my client under the press law,” he said. “The reports published in the newspaper were obviously of interest to its readers so it is clearly a press freedom issue.”
Speaking to the media, he said that, in order to reach a verdict quickly, the Phnom Penh court had rejected his request for an adjournment and had rushed the trial without Hang Chakra being present.
One of Cambodia’s three opposition dailies, Khmer Machas Srok is linked to the opposition Sam Rainsy party. Hang Chakra told the Cambodge Soir newspaper before he was jailed: “I know the courts will not rule in my favour… but I am not afraid.” In an article for the Phnom Penh Post (www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/ 2009060426264/National-news/Publisher-answers-charges.html), he said he had resisted the prosecutor’s attempts to get him to name his sources.
Judge Din Sivuthy tried Hang Chakra under the criminal code inherited from the UNTAC instead of the 1995 press law in order to be able to impose a more severe sentence. The press law provides for fines but not jail sentences.
According to the Cambodian Journalists Club, six lawsuits have been brought against opposition or independent journalists since the start of the year. Two of them are journalists employed by Radio Free Asia’s Khmer service who are being prosecuted in connection with a report on Cambodia’s Muslim community.
Hang Chakra’s jail sentence marks a new phase in the politicisation of defamation and disinformation complaints being brought by government officials in recent months. A report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia deplored the fact that at least eight different complaints were pending against opposition members, lawyers and journalists.