A British journalist has been convicted of defaming a French property developer in a blog post in an unprecedented ruling that has been described as a blow to freedom of expression in Cambodia.
Rupert Winchester, a former property reporter for the Phnom Penh Post, was on Wednesday ordered by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to pay $25,000 in damages to Etienne Chenevier, the director of CityStar Private Equity Asia, and fined a further $2,000.
The case stemmed from a June 2013 post on Mr. Winchester’s blog, The Mighty Penh, in which he claimed CityStar planned to knock down a colonial-era property opposite the National Museum to build a seven-story condominium.
In the post, which has since been removed, he quoted Mr. Chenevier as saying: “I strongly deny it. Why would we want to knock down our own building? If you say we will, I will sue you.”
Mr. Winchester then invited the businessman to “knock yourself out” and described his business attributes in an unfavorable manner.
Judge Ros Piseth said people should be more careful when pushing unsubstantiated information into the public sphere.
“[If you] say something bad about others it [could lead to] a defamation case,” he said.
In a statement released ahead of the verdict, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) expressed concern that a conviction could set a dangerous precedent.
Rick Valenzuela, president of the OPCC, said in the statement: “With the government gearing up to pass a draft Cybercrime Law that falls well below international standards for privacy and freedom of expression, a guilty verdict against Winchester will have a further chilling effect on what is said or written on the Internet in Cambodia, by journalists or anybody else.”
Speaking after Wednesday’s verdict, Mr. Winchester said he planned to appeal.
“I think Chenevier is trying to bully me into acquiescing using his vast resources,” he said.
Mr. Winchester had also reported about CityStar for the Phnom Penh Post. The article no longer appears on the newspaper’s website.
Kong Rady, Mr. Chenevier’s lawyer, said his client had pursued Mr. Winchester as an individual, not a journalist, because the newspaper had corrected the story.
Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief Chad Williams declined to comment on the case.
The building brought into question in Mr. Winchester’s blog post remains occupied and standing.
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