The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged freelance journalist Ros Sokhet with spreading “disinformation” yesterday and put him on immediate trial for allegedly sending text messages accusing well-known television anchor and newspaper publisher Soy Sopheap of wrongdoing.
However, the trial, taking place just one day after Mr Sokhet’s arrest, was adjourned and rescheduled after the journalist requested a delay so that he could obtain a lawyer.
Mr Sokhet was detained for questioning by Interior Ministry police on Wednesday after Mr Sopheap, a CTN news anchor and the publisher of Deum Ampil newspaper who is well known for his close relationship with the government, filed a complaint seeking the arrest of an unknown person who had sent him three text messages he claimed were threatening.
Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Sok Roeun said yesterday that he had decided to send the case for immediate trial after Mr Sokhet had refused to answer questions without a lawyer present.
During yesterday’s trial, which was scheduled unusually quickly and held during lunchtime on a public holiday, Mr Roeun told the court’s Deputy Director and Presiding Judge Chhay Kong that Mr Sokhet was charged with disseminating disinformation for sending Mr Sopheap accusatory telephone text messages on Oct 8 and 28.
Mr Roeun, who has worked as a prosecutor on high-level political cases, including Prime Minister Hun Sen’s defamation suit against SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua and the case of jailed newspaper editor Hang Chakra, did not explain to the court what was in the text messages received by Mr Sopheap, saying only that “the dissemination of disinformation was made through the phone and by telling others.”
Standing in the dock, Mr Sokhet, 40, asked Judge Kong to delay the trial for three days so that he could obtain legal counsel. “I feel that I need to talk to a lawyer,” Mr Sokhet said. “It’s strange that the trial has been held in such a rush. A judge and a clerk were very restrictive and would not allow me to use the phone [to call a lawyer],” he told the court. Mr Sokhet also said the court was wrong to charge him with disinformation for sending Mr Sopheap personal text messages.
“My crime didn’t seriously affect Soy Sopheap,” Mr Sokhet added.
“I just feel that he was a corrupt journalist. I already wrote a story [about this] in Southeast Asia Globe [magazine], and I didn’t disseminate this information to anyone besides him,” Mr Sokhet said of his text messages. In an article published in the local monthly magazine Southeast Asia Globe on Oct 10, Mr Sokhet wrote that reporters from leading Khmer-language newspapers regularly demand hush money from sources to bury stories.
“It is not right-I ask the prosecutor’s representative, please release me to find a lawyer, and I will negotiate with Soy Sopheap directly,” Mr Sokhet continued before bursting into tears.
After deliberation, Judge Kong agreed to reschedule the trial for Nov 6, but he denied Mr Sokhet bail and ruled that he would remain in pretrial detention in Prey Sar prison until his hearing.
Contacted by telephone yesterday, Mr Sopheap said that he preferred to let the court handle his case.
“Everyone wants people to respect the law, especially journalists,” he said, adding that he believed Mr Sokhet had sent the messages, accusing him of corruption, with bad intentions in mind. Asked why the court had brought a disinformation charge against Mr Sokhet, Mr Sopheap said only, “I don’t know; it’s the court’s work.”
The current law on disinformation defines the offense as “the publication, distribution or reproduction” of information that is “false, fabricated, falsified or untruthfully attributed to a third person and done so in bad faith and with malicious intent, provided that the publication, distribution or reproduction had disturbed or is likely to disturb the public peace….”
Those found guilty of the charge can be jailed from six months to three years, and fined between $250 and $2,500.
The text messages sent to Mr Sopheap from Mr Sokhet related to the recent case of Ke Dara, the wife of a government adviser who was fined and sentenced to 18 months in jail after she shot a pistol into the air in a high-profile September incident.
One of the SMS messages – provided by Mr Sopheap – read: “But Ke Dara’s case is small, U made it into big. I also receive reports of u extorting money from Tong Seng and other CPP Governors. They a not happy with u.” Another stated: “O.K. Many CPP officials are not happy u and they 1 to take action against u. Ur boss at ctn is also not happy with u too.”
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies and a long-time journalism trainer, said yesterday that he did not feel Mr Sokhet had spread disinformation because his messages had not been disseminated to a third party.
“It has to be found that the information is false and that the disseminator had bad intentions,” he said, pointing out that Mr Sokhet has claimed the messages had been sent in jest. “We journalists are like brothers in the same family, and we get angry with each other only for a moment,” Mr Chhean Nariddh added. “But we still regard each other as brothers, and Soy Sopheap will understand this.” Mr Sopheap also said on Wednesday that aside from the text messages, he had received a separate e-mailed death threat on Monday from a sender identified only as “Narin Oum.”
“A Soy Sopheap, Do you want to test my gun shot. Do you know how you suffered my sister. I will kill you one day,” the e-mail read.