The Appeal Court yesterday upheld the one-year prison sentence of opposition newspaper editor Hang Chakra who was convicted of disinformation and jailed in June by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court over several articles his newspaper published about senior government officials.
During the hearing, defense lawyer Chung Chou Ngy argued that the 55-year-old Mr Chakra, editor of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, had not threatened the stability of the country by publishing the stories in question, a stipulation required when prosecuting an individual under the charge of “disinformation.”
“There is no found element and possibility that the articles could cause damage [to the nation]. There is no damage stemming from the articles,” he told the three-judge panel at the Appeal Court.
But the judges nevertheless ruled that the municipal court was correct in its punishment of Mr Chakra, which also included a fine of $2,250.
“We uphold the Phnom Penh court’s ruling and will keep the sentence,” Judge Seng Sivutha told the court.
During the hearing, Judge Sivutha also called on Mr Chakra to name the anonymous sources who supplied information for his stories on alleged corruption at the Council of Ministers.
Mr Chakra, however, refused to divulge his source.
“Do you agree this is disinformation?” Judge Sivutha asked Mr Chakra at one point during the hearing.
Mr Chakra responded that he was only exercising his right to freedom of expression, but he did offer an apology regarding the content of the articles.
“I apologize for my acts since I did not expect the situation to turn out like this,” he told the court.
Government lawyer Suong Chanthan argued that journalists have a right to freedom of expression, but it should not damage the interests of a third party. Under the criminal code, he said, the newspaper articles had spread disinformation and therefore, in the interests of preserving the country’s democratic principles, the editor should be punished under the law.
“Our country is a democratic country, so we have to follow the law,” he said in court.
When Mr Chanthan filed the lawsuit against Mr Chakra in May, he claimed that the newspaper’s articles threatened the country’s political stability.
One of the offending article published in the April 5-7 issue of Khmer Machas Srok ran with the headline “Hun Sen Has Cracked Down on Bad and Corrupt Officials Who Are Working Around Sok An.”
Naly Pilorge, executive director of local rights group Licadho, called the ruling a warning to government critics.
“This is the government’s message to others who give negative messages about the government,” she said.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said the government should not have used the criminal code in this case.
“This is intimidation of journalists and silencing of press freedom. It was wrong since the beginning because he is a journalist. The court should have used the press law for his case,” he said.
SRP lawmaker and party spokesman Yim Sovann said the country’s courts are crucial to a functioning democracy, but cases like Mr Chakra’s show the court does the government’s bidding.
“The current court plays the role of a puppet for the ruling party to silence those who have contradicted [them],” the lawmaker said.