A lawyer for Chea Kheng, the wife of Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem, has warned that mentioning his client’s relationship to the minister could be grounds for a lawsuit on the criminal charge of spreading “disinformation.”
Lawyer Phat Pouv Seang called a reporter at The Cambodia Daily yesterday morning, demanding the removal of Mr Sem’s name from articles about a land dispute between KDC International, a company owned by the minister’s wife, and villagers in Kompong Chhnang province.
Mr Pouv Seang, who is also a member of the legal defense team for the Khmer Rouge regime’s former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, confirmed that Ms Kheng and Mr Sem are married, but he said that such information should not be published when writing about the land dispute issue.
“You cannot mention [Mr Sem’s] name in an article about a hot issue like this,” Mr Pouv Seang said. “If you do a correction, it is OK, but if you can’t do a correction, we will file a complaint with the court for disinformation,” he said.
“They are husband and wife, but they have different responsibilities. Their relationship is irrelevant concerning this issue,” he added.
Minister Suy Sem’s cabinet chief Cheap Sour also confirmed the relationship yesterday. Mr Sour said that, as far as he knew, the ministry was not considering legal action against newspapers writing about the land dispute.
However, Mr Sour also cautioned, “Don’t proceed any more for this thing. We should compromise. I don’t really recommend you to expand this story more.”
Mr Sem could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The articles in question relate to a Phnom Penh Municipal Court summons issued to Un Sophy, a community leader in Ta Ches commune in Kompong Chhnang’s Kompong Tralach district. Ms Sophy has been accused of inciting villagers to farm on land titled to KCD, a charge she has denied.
The land in dispute lies along National Road 5, according to Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho. Licadho was approached by 108 villagers in 2007, asking for help to resolve the dispute with KDC.
“While some families in that area have agreed to sell land to the company in the past, others have refused. Yet, KDC company is claiming the whole area, resulting in the ongoing conflict between the community and the company,” Ms Pilorge wrote in an e-mail message yesterday.
Ms Sophy will be the second representative of the community to appear before the Phnom Penh court.
On Sept 4, village chief Toch Ly was sent to jail for 16 months after being convicted of forgery for collecting signatures from 77 families claiming ownership of 108 hectares under dispute with KDC.
Ms Kheng spoke by telephone with a reporter yesterday to insist that her husband is not involved with her company’s business and that she legally obtained the land in Ta Ches commune.
Mr Pouv Seang, Ms Kheng’s lawyer, also said yesterday that the land was legally sold to another company in 1987, and that the villagers should have filed a complaint within five years of that sale.
“They filed after the mandate expired according to the land law,” Mr Pouv Seang said, adding that he did not know when KDC purchased the land.
Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that disinformation charges could only be made against publication of false information.
“We can sue for disinformation when we know it is not true,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the charge of disinformation relates to just that: “information that is not true.”
“If the wife of the minister wants to say something, maybe you can publish what she said. If she wants to reply, The Cambodia Daily can publish what she said,” he said.
Mr Sam Oeun added that there is a big difference between Cambodian law in theory and Cambodian law in practice.
“In Cambodian law, we have no presumption of innocence-you have to understand this point-only presumption of guilt,” he said. “In the Constitution there is a presumption of innocence-only in the law-but in practice, no.”
Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, said yesterday that the relationship between Ms Kheng and Mr Sem was a valid point in articles on the land dispute.
“She is the wife of the minister, the minister is a public official. Anyone related to a public official should be scrutinized by the public,” Mr Chhean Nariddh said. “It is in the interest of the public, who has the right to know.”
Mr Chhean Nariddh stressed that members of the government should not turn to the courts to sort out their problems with the media.
“Public officials have plenty of venues to clarify information, in terms of writing letters to the editor, holding a press conference,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)