Media Barred From City’s Courthouse

Police barred journalists from en­tering the grounds of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wed­nes­day after the court’s top officials, including its new director, signed an order limiting media ac­cess to the courthouse.

Metal sheeting has been erected around the front of the compound, obscuring the view from outside, and the downstairs courtroom has been relocated further back inside the building.

The order, dated Oct 21 and signed by Court Director Chiv Keng, Chief Prosecutor Ouk Sa­vouth and Chief Clerk Heng Bop­hea, states: “A journalist can cover the news outside the court compound.”

The order cites the small space inside the compound—the car­park of which is usually filled with luxury sports utility vehicles and oth­er high-end cars—and the need to protect the privacy of “guests” of the court as reasons for the move.

“The court doesn’t allow all journalists to enter the compound to cover the news inside…. In some cases, the court must protect the personal secrets, honor and dignity of a client,” the order reads.

Chiv Keng, who was moved from the Supreme Court to the municipal court on Oct 14, de­fended the order, and said the ban was prompted by reporters tak­ing pictures without permission. He said that under the press law, journalists must obtain prior per­mis­sion from the subject of a photograph, and from the court.

According to Article 4 of the press law, journalists may report on “all aspects of the judicial pro­cess, including its procedures.” The only exceptions are when the trial has been closed to the pub­lic by a court order or the case is still under investigation.

The law prevents the identification of “parties in any civil suit in­volving paternity, marriage, di­vorce or child custody; a youth un­der the age of 18 in any civil or criminal suit; or a woman who is a victim of molestation or rape,” ac­cording to Article 15.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vat­hana defended the regulations, say­ing there are good and bad journalists and that good journalists will not be affected if they follow the order.

“You just have to get permission, authorization from [Chiv Keng],” the minister said.

“It’s not a ban. Maybe you can let [Chiv Keng] know where you work,” he said.

Ang Vong Vathana declined to say whether the Justice Ministry would be investigating the legality of the order.

Nop Sophon, the court’s former deputy director, who was re­moved from his position for un­specified “wrongdoings” the day Chiv Keng was put in his new position, said photo­graphs should not be taken in­side the courtroom. “But I don’t know any law that forbids journalists from covering the news and entering the court compound,” he said.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive di­rector of the Cambodian Defen­ders Project, said it was difficult to tell by the wording of the order whether the court meant to keep out every journalist. But he said barring reporters from the compound and covering tri­als “is not consistent with the law, which says all journalists can attend.”

Over the years, journalists have not been allowed into some high-profile court cases, including the trial of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew, Nhim Sophea, relating to the shooting death of passers-by after a car crash near Olympic Stadium in October 2003, and the first time the Cam­bodian Bar Council presidency case went before the Appeals Court.

Sok Sam Oeun said lawyers from his organization will request that all court cases be open to the public.

“It has to be public,” he said, adding that Chiv Keng’s previous experience at the Supreme Court may have influenced his decision.“The Supreme Court judges are very strict, but if he does this, it is wrong.”

Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists and editor-in-chief of Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper, criticized the new regulations.

“The order is very strange,” he said. “As we know, hearings are public and everyone can attend. Of course there are some hearings we are not allowed to cover by law, but that is not our request.”


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