PHNOM PENH—The editor of a Khmer opposition newspaper has been fined and sentenced in absentia to a year in prison for allegedly spreading “disinformation” after publishing a series of articles accusing a senior official of corruption.
Hang Chakra, of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, didn’t attend his trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal court but was arrested afterward at a rented home in Chamcar Samrong commune, Battambang city, and sent to Prey Sar prison near the capital, Phnom Penh.
His attorney, Chuong Choungy, vowed to appeal, calling the ruling unfair since neither he nor his client was present during the court decision.
Only the judge, prosecutors, and government lawyer who brought the lawsuit against Hang Chakra attended the trial.
“I’m asking the court to issue me the decision [in writing] and also [a copy of] the arrest warrant, because it authorized the arrest of my client and sent him to jail. I need these documents to file an appeal to free my client,” Chuong Choungy said.
“The criticism [my client] made was political, so the solution to this issue must come through a political process,” he said.
Chuong Choungy accused Cambodian officials of "[using] the court as their tool to shut the mouths of people who dare to criticize or publish uncomplimentary stories."
Khmer Machas Srok, which endorses Cambodia’s opposition Sam Rainsy Party, published articles earlier this year alleging that Deputy Prime Minister Sok An was involved in corruption, according to a report by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
Sok An lodged a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, claiming that the newspaper was posing a threat to political stability by publishing articles that damaged the reputation of government officials.
On June 26, Judge Din Sivuthy ruled that Hang Chakra should pay a fine of 9 million riel (U.S. $2,250) and spend a year in prison for publishing "false information" and defaming on Sok An, according to a report by The Phnom Penh Post.
The charges were based on the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) criminal code, which carries harsher penalties against journalists such as imprisonment, rather than the more recently introduced Press Law.
Am Sam Ath, director of investigation for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), said the case could “seriously affect the rights of journalists to express their opinion.”
“The Appeal court must think about Hang Chakra’s case. The information law should be considered first before the criminal code is used,” he said.
Phnom Penh municipal court and Justice Ministry officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
RSF slams verdict
The Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called Monday for Hang Chakra's release, calling his conviction and imprisonment "shocking."
"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 [UNTAC]," RSF said.
"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."
"Hang Chakra must be freed, and then articles 62 and 63 of the criminal code bequeathed by the U.N. must be amended," it said.
This is the first time that a Cambodian journalist has been jailed since June 2008, when Dam Sith, managing editor of the opposition daily Moneaksekar Khmer, spent a week in prison after being accused by the foreign minister of disseminating false information.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, Cambodia’s government, military forces, and ruling political party continue to dominate the country’s broadcast media and influence the content of broadcasts there.
“All television stations and most radio stations were controlled or strongly influenced by the Cambodian People’s Party, although a few were independent or aligned with other parties,” the report said.
The report added that journalists, publishers, and distributors were also subject to harassment and intimidation, including death threats, and that most reporters and editors privately admitted to self-censorship for fear of government reprisals.
Original reporting by Savborey for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Written in English for the Web by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.