The Court of Appeal this week heard one of the country’s more prominent cases. For four hours, lawyers and witnesses, victims and defendants rehashed the details of the case that landed Pursat’s former top prosecutor in jail on a bevy of corruption and extortion charges.
Most local news outlets sent reporters to cover Tob Chan Sereyvuth’s appeal hearing, but before they entered the courtroom, one by one, the journalists handed over their cameras and recorders, notebooks and pens to a waiting police officer.
No one is allowed to take notes, Judge Pol Samoeun announced to the chamber, at the start of the hearing.
Appeal Court President You Bunleng claimed that the ban on reporters’ paper and pens is nothing new.
For more than a decade, he said yesterday, the Appeal Court has had an internal rule banning note-taking during hearings, but it is only in the last few months that court officials have begun to implement the rule, which has a decidedly selective focus on major cases.
The Appeal Court insists that banning the pen is a necessary regulation, one that has come about in response to faulty news articles. Having no news articles at all, is what the court would now seem to prefer.
But legal and media experts have criticized the court’s decision, pointing out that it violates the country’s own legislation governing the press, and could diminish the rule of law.
“The internal rule of the court bans reporters and visitors from taking notes or recordings since the court was created in 1994,” said Mr. Bunleng, who also serves as the national co-investigating judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal (where reporters are allowed to take notes with pens in the courtroom).
The Appeal Court, Mr. Bunleng explained, has only in the past few months began pushing its police officers to implement the ban on note taking, though presiding judges are allowed to make exceptions to the rule on a case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes the media reports the hearing incorrectly, saying there is a verdict before the verdict has been issued by the court. It makes the public angry with the court, not with the media,” Mr. Bunleng gave as his reason for the ban.
Director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies and a long-time journalism trainer, Moeun Chhean Narridh called that reasoning deeply flawed.
“If there’s a mistake in the work, the court can seek redress by asking the media to publish a correction,” he said, adding that banning note taking by journalists completely was unlikely to improve accuracy.
“Taking equipment from journalists is a form of censorship and it’s banned under the press law,” continued Mr. Chhean Narridh.
While the Press Law doesn’t specify the means with which journalists can cover stories, it is unstinting in its stipulation that “all aspects of the judicial process, including its procedures,” may be published, except under extenuating circumstances, such as cases involving minors.
Hindering the coverage of cases, said Mr. Chhean Narridh and others, diminishes the press’s watchdog role, and increases the chances of malfeasance.
“There should be transparency and the presence of journalists ensures that transparency as well as justice,” he said, adding that officials are less likely to manipulate the law if they know they’re being observed in their work.
“The law says that trials are open for the public. It’s not public if they kick journalists out,” argued Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. “I really do not support this idea.”
It is not entirely clear that the regulation is even legally valid.
Sam Pracheamarith, cabinet chief at the Justice Ministry, said he had no knowledge of the internal rule banning paper and pens at the Appeal Court, but said such regulations are generally within the individual judge’s discretion.
“The Justice Minister did not write to the court banning reporters to take notes into the hearing room, but the judge has the right to run a close-door hearing and to not allow the public or reporters to even hear the trial,” he said.
At the Supreme Court, Sin Virak, an adviser to the president of the court, said there are no plans to implement similar restrictions on journalists, but he declined to comment on the validity of the rule. “Each court has its own internal rules,” he said.
Reporters, meanwhile, called the regulation unnecessary and detrimental.
“We can’t remember everything about what they say [in court]. It’s very difficult when the court bans note-taking like this,” said Vong Sopheak, a court reporter with Cambodia Express News.
“We respect the court rule, but our brain is not a computer,” said Heng Raksemei, a reporter at V.O.A. radio. “The story might end up wrong when we can’t take notes on what they said.”
At the Appeal Court yesterday, public order police officer Say Rady gestured at an expansive, still-shiny new sign detailing the 10 points that comprise the internal rules.
“We’ve had them since 1994,” he said, adding that “only in the past five or six months have we begun to implement it.”
Asked if reporters ever complain about handing over the tools of their trade, he said: “Yes, yes, occasionally they make trouble… but it’s the rule.”