Investigating judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal announced yesterday that they had begun contempt-of-court proceedings against US-based Voice of America for publishing confidential material, marking the first time the court has moved to sanction the press.
“After Voice of America Khmer on 10 August 2011 quoted verbatim from a confidential document of the ECCC and even showed that document on a video, the Co-Investigating Judges have instituted proceedings for interference with the administration of justice (contempt of court) pursuant to ECCC Internal Rule 35,” the judges said in a short statement.
They went on to warn that anyone who divulges the content of confidential documents could be prosecuted within the Cambodian court system but did not say whether Voice of America would face prosecution.
Court spokesman Lars Olsen said he could not elaborate on the statement or discuss what sanctions against VOA judges might be contemplating.
Co-Investigating Judges Siegfried Blunk and You Bunleng have maintained a combative relationship with the media since coming under pressure in April for their cursory treatment of two government-opposed cases that are before the tribunal, known in court parlance as cases 003 and 004.
They have not investigated the cases thoroughly and have released sparse public information on them, even withholding key facts that could have aided victims and other interested parties. This stance has led to a string of major leaks from the court over the past few months.
The Voice of America article that drew the judges’ ire appears to be a report on Ta An, one of the three suspects in Case 004, accused by prosecutors in 2009 of genocide, crimes against humanity, murder, torture and religious persecution. He was allegedly instrumental in the bloody purge of the Central Zone of Democratic Kampuchea starting in 1977.
In an online article and an accompanying video, VOA quoted from prosecutors’ initial allegations, which are confidential, to explain that murders and disappearances in the Central Zone increased dramatically and living conditions became far worse after Ta An arrived.
By the time of the Voice of America article’s publication on Aug 10, the allegations had already been quoted by other media organizations, as well as published in full by a New Zealand-based news website.
Voice of America, funded by the US government and based in Washington, did not respond to questions yesterday on whether the tribunal had already initiated court proceedings or otherwise sanctioned the news service.
Sok Khemara, the Washington-based VOA reporter who produced the news report on Ta An, said he had just been doing his job.
“I think that revealing the truth for the public is the duty of the journalist,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “In addition, muzzling the journalist’s work would…weaken the freedom of expression, human rights, democracy. That is what many repressive country leaders around the world want.”
Chris Decherd, the head of VOA’s Khmer service, said in an e-mailed statement: “VOA Khmer supports the work of the ECCC and helps inform the Cambodian public by reporting about the ECCC’s work.”
The tribunal’s rules on contempt-of-court proceedings are so vague that it is hard to know exactly what penalties Voice of America could face, according to Anne Heindel, a legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
The rules say judges can refer contempt-of-court cases to a national prosecutor, but they do not specify under what Cambodian law a contempt case would be prosecuted.
One Penal Code charge that might apply is Unlawful Interference in the Performance of Public Functions, which is punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,500. But Cambodian prosecutors would apparently be free to apply any charge they find relevant, such as defamation or even incitement, Ms Heindel said.
Sok Roeun, deputy prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said he had not received a complaint from the tribunal over Voice of America’s conduct, and declined to comment on how he would prosecute such a case.
The court rules say judges can also choose to “deal with the matter summarily,” but it is not clear what this would entail.
“It’s completely vague and unclear,” Ms Heindel said of the rules.
“And it is concerning that a UN-assisted court would use this provision to prosecute free speech, both because of the vagueness and obviously the recent cracking down on journalists in Cambodia. We don’t know what the sanction is. That’s the most worrying part,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)