Court Rules Against Editor In Libel Case

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted an opposition newspaper editor of defamation and libel on Monday, saying the newspaper broke the law when it published articles calling Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the National Assembly “silly and greatly corrupt.”

The court also ordered Dam Sith, the editor of the Sam Rainsy Party-aligned newspaper Moneak­sekar Khmer, to publish a retraction and pay the government 1 million riel (about $253) and to pay Prince Ranariddh 100 riel (about $0.05) in compensation.

Prince Ranariddh welcomed the ruling, saying on Monday that the court “was giving justice to the National Assembly” and to himself.

“I would like the press to write about the truth and abide by their professionalism. They have to be literal, objective and professional,” Prince Ranariddh said.

Prince Ranariddh’s lawyer, Thach Reng, accused the newspaper of violating Article 62 and Article 63 of the Untac penal code as well as Cambodia’s press law when the newspaper published articles with “vulgar” headlines, calling the prince corrupt and the Parliament “chicken-ass.”

“I cannot accept this ruling—this judgment is incompetent,” Dam Sith said Monday after the verdict was handed down. Dam Sith said he would appeal the ruling.

“This is unfair and libel suits like this affect the press freedoms in Cambodia,” said Lao Mong Hay, a democracy advocate. “This is not good, but the courts are also a problem because they often do not follow proper legal procedure.”

In recent months, newspapers in Southeast Asia have come under attack.

In January, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shina­watra threatened to expel from Thai­land two foreign journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review who suggested a rift between Thaksin and the Thai king. Thak­sin also banned an issue of The Econ­omist, and his government ordered its anti-money laundering office to investigate the finances of Thai journalists.

Similarly, Malaysia has continuously stalled distribution of some Western magazines, including Time.

“[Libel and defamation suits] against newspapers are frightening and it scares people,” said Norbert Klein, an adviser with Open Forum of Cambodia. Klein added that while the number of journalists killed or assaulted has decreased in Cambodia in recent years, the number of libel and defamation suits has increased.

Klein likened some of the Cam­bodian defamation suits to Sing­apore and Malaysia, where governments use excessive fines and lawsuits to silence critics of the government, especially opposition parties.

“In Singapore and Malaysia, the governments often fine the newspapers hundreds of thousands of dollars, which sends a chilling effect to the newspapers,” Klein said. “While the courts in Cambodia continuously impose lower fines on the newspapers, to have a libel case with a conviction always has a chilling effect to journalists.”

He added, however, that the level of professionalism among journalists in Cambodia is still relatively low, and therefore some stories published by Cambodian newspapers would be considered libelous by Western standards.

“While these libel suits are often bad, they sometimes do not come as a surprise,” Klein said.

Lao Mong Hay agreed, saying, “Members of the press need to be more careful and more professional.”

 

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