Critics Say Laws Leave Media Vulnerable

In the wake of recent pressure against several local newspapers, journalists and media watchdogs have again voiced concerns about weak­nesses in Cambodia’s press law.

At issue are existing press laws, which critics have long complained are so broad they give the government a free ticket to suspend newspapers and put its media opponents in jail.

“All journalists are afraid of this,” said Minister of Information Lu Laysreng in a recent interview. “Of course it is a bomb for the government that they can [explode] anytime, or a knife they can cut any time.”

But he maintained he has al­ways been cautious about using his authority, which permits him to suspend newspapers for up to 30 days, impose heavy fines and direct a government lawyer to bring criminal complaints against journalists who endanger “national security and political stability.”

“Sometimes [officials] incite me to close [newspapers] for political reasons,” Lu Laysreng said. “[But] if I close one, I must have some reasons. They push me to close, but I must protect myself.”

The aspect of the press law that strikes fear into editors and re­por­t­ers is Article 12, which doesn’t define what constitutes endangering security and stability and leaves unclear what could bring cri­minal charges. Under the current system, critics say, any newspaper is vulnerable to suspension and criminal prosecution at any time.

Only last month, ministry officials invoked Article 12 to suspend the Kampuchea Bulletin for reprinting a South China Morning Post story they allege defamed King Norodom Sihanouk. A government lawyer has since brought a criminal complaint against the paper using a different law.

Director of the Cambodian Defenders Project Sok Sam Oeun, who has defended four journalists from criminal prosecution since the press law was passed in 1995, said the case is a clear example of the weakness of the current law.

The government uses the vague grounds outlined in Article 12 to suspend a newspaper but then uses different laws when the cases go to court, he said.

Sok Sam Oeun added that it’s now the responsibility of the Ministry of Information to clarify Article 12.

A proposal to do so in 1996 was ultimately knocked down by the Council of Ministers two years later when human rights and international press watchdogs protested that it gave too much power to the government. Since then, plans for a new measure have been hanging in limbo.

Lu Laysreng said that drafting this new measure is not on the ministry’s current agenda. More pressing is the need to raise professionalism among Cambodian journalists by introducing stricter standards for licensing newspapers, he said.

These standards, which would require editors and journalists to have certain educational qualifications—as well as a medical certificate to prove their mental fitness—have come under fire from human rights groups since they were first proposed in 1996.

Another sore point for many in the media is that officials take advantage of Article 12’s vagueness and invoke other laws to lodge criminal complaints against journalists.

Under Articles 62 and 63 of the Untac law, journalists accused of defamation of character or libel are open to criminal prosecution.

Prosecutors are considering using the articles in cases against the Kampuchea Bulletin and another local paper, Moneakseker Khmer (Khmer Ideal).

Lu Laysreng told the National Assembly last month he’d bring a complaint against a third paper, Samleng Yuvakchon Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth), to the attention of a government lawyer with the intention of bringing a criminal complaint.

The paper published a story last month alleging Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet is illegitimate.

On Monday, the lawyer, Pol Chantara, said he “hasn’t heard” of the case. The Voice of Khmer Youth editor also said Monday he had no formal complaint from the government and that he’d only read about it in Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia).

Critics say libel cases should be settled in a civil court, as stated in the press law. The threat of criminal prosecution has a chilling affect on the press, they say, and Articles 62 and 63 should be revoked.

But government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday that in many cases, civil suits aren’t an adequate redress for the most grave cases.

Mounting a civil case is too expensive for many people, he said, and awards won in suits against journalists are likely to be too small to make the action worthwhile.

“Cambodian journalists are very poor,” he said.

Last month, Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun To, filed a complaint asking for criminal charges to be brought against Moneakseker Khmer, government lawyer Pol Chantara said Monday. The complaint was prompted by a July 4 article hinting that Hun To was profiting from a marijuana plantation in Kompong Cham province.

Soy Sopheap, a representative of the Coordination Group for Cambodian Journalists, said recently he recognizes that newspapers sometimes run stories that are not adequately substantiated. But reporters too often get the run-around from government officials who refuse to answer difficult questions, he said.

“The government officials will not confirm, so they have to publish without confirmation and then wait for them to respond,” said Soy Sopheap, who also is a correspondent for the Japanese wire service, Kyodo News.

“Sometimes they respond by shutting the newspaper.”

Moneakseker Khmer Editor-in Chief Dam Sith said that, if asked, he would “gladly” run a correction to the Hun To story, but he does not think criminal charges should be brought against employees of the paper.

Dam Sith, who is due to appear in court for preliminary questioning on Wednesday, believes his newspaper has become a target of increasing attacks from the government “because we are an opposition newspaper, and the government is never happy with us criticizing [its] wrongdoing.”

Moneakseker Khmer is aligned with Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and of his self-named party.

Editor-in-Chief of the Kampuchea Bulletin Khieu Phirum also said he thinks the Ministry of Information is too trigger-happy when it comes to using the press law to punish newspapers, pointing out that this is the second suspension of the Bulletin in three months.

Khieu Phirum said he believes the criminal complaint against the Bulletin is part of a campaign by the government to permanently shut down a paper that has been a thorn in its side since it opened at the start of this year, he said.

The Bulletin’s publisher, Ouk Kim Seng, will appear today before municipal court officials who will decide if criminal action is warranted, government lawyer Pol Chantara said Monday. Khieu Phirum was questioned by court officials last week.

“The government has men who are very angry with my publication,” Khieu Phirum said. “This is a good time for them to find fault, to shut it down.”

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith denied the accusation.

“Why does he [Khieu Phirum] try to justify his action by accusing the government?” he said. Cambodian journalists enjoy more freedom than any other journalists in the region, he maintained.

“Here you have people calling Hun Sen a traitor, a Vietnamese puppet,” Khieu Kanharith said. “Here you have everything.

“[But] journalists have to know the limit….In this kind of easy-going situation you violate, you abuse your rights. Sometimes controls are better.”

Lu Laysreng echoed these sentiments, saying that he would continue to discipline the press until journalists learn to act more responsibly.

“You cannot be free for free,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Lor Chandara)

 

 

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