PHNOM PENH—A Cambodian appeals court has upheld the prison sentence of a newspaper editor and publisher jailed for "disinformation" after he ran articles alleging high-level government corruption, and his lawyer is vowing to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Hang Chakra, former director of Khmer Machas Srok, was sentenced to a year in jail on June 26 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and was fined 9 million riel (about U.S. $2,250).
He has been held in a cell with 50 other men at Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison since his conviction. On Aug. 11, a three-judge appellate panel upheld the sentence.
Hang Chakra's lawyer, Choung Chou Ngy, is vowing to appeal to the Cambodian Supreme Court.
“There has been no unrest resulting from this publication—the Appeals Court decision is unfair,” Choung Chou Ngy told reporters here.
Hang Chakra refused during the hearing to identify sources for the article, citing protections under Cambodia’s 1995 Press Law. He was tried under the tougher 1992 UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) Criminal Code.
Prosecutor attorney Suong Chanthan said he was pleased with the ruling.
Opposition MPs, human rights groups, and staff from the U.S. Embassy here attended the appellate hearing and denounced the ruling.
“This judgment constitutes a threat to freedom of expression,” Am Sam Ath, chief investigator at the local human rights group LICADHO, said.
Son Chhay, an MP from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, also condemned the ruling.
“The court’s judgment shows the ruling party’s stance to condemn those who dare to express opinions critical of the government,” he said.
Sara Colm, country specialist for Human Rights Watch, said the Appeal Court decision was "more than disappointing."
"This is yet another indication that the space for opposition journalists and NGOs and human rights defenders in Cambodia is shrinking," Colm said.
"The fact that this was upheld on appeal will only solidify the control of the ruling party over the press and dissenting voices."
Cambodia’s government has brought several defamation and disinformation lawsuits this year in what rights activists regard as a significant crackdown on freedom of expression.
‘Campaign of harassment’
Human Rights Watch has urged Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to end what it called a “campaign of harassment, threats, and unwarranted legal action aimed at consolidating its rule by silencing the political opposition and peaceful critics.”
The New York-based organization cited “at least nine politically motivated criminal defamation and disinformation cases against journalists, opposition members of parliament, lawyers, and government critics,” including the case against Hang Chakra.
Human Rights Watch also urged Cambodia’s international donors to press the government to stop what it called its heavy-handed harassment of opposition members.
Cambodia's National Assembly meanwhile voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of two of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's most active members, paving the way to try them on criminal charges of defamation against Hun Sen and 22 military officials, respectively.
All the recent lawsuits were filed under the UNTAC Criminal Code's Articles 62 and 63, laws addressing disinformation and defamation and libel, Human Rights Watch said.
Original reporting by Sok Serey for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translations by Sothea Thai. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.