One of the country’s most prominent academics has found himself enmeshed in yet another controversy involving social media—this time threatening a lawsuit against a former student at his Phnom Penh university over a Facebook post complaining about fees at the school.
In a message posted to her Facebook page on Friday, Nuon Vityeathika, 26, a former graduate student at Khemarak University, said she had been faced with a range of school-mandated expenses with graduation approaching in February, including a fee to take part in the school’s graduation ceremony and a donation of $10 to the Cambodian Red Cross.
Khemarak University is part-owned by scholar Sok Touch, who also serves as the school’s rector. Earlier this year, Mr. Touch was tasked by the government with researching the demarcation of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
“Schools encourage students to participate, but this school chooses to extort money for just participating,” Ms. Vityeathika wrote on Facebook. “I’d like to ask the professors, the rector of Khemarak University: Does the school have such messy policies, or do all other private schools do the same?”
While Ms. Vityeathika subsequently penned a public apology on Sunday over the “confusion” caused by her initial post—following a meeting with school administrators—Mr. Touch wrote on his Facebook page later that evening that the former pupil would face legal action if she did not further retract her claims.
“A Facebook account under the name Nuon Vityeathika posted untrue information about Khemarak University, which affected the honor of the university,” he wrote. If no “public apology” was forthcoming, he added, “Khemarak University will file a complaint against the account owner.”
Ros Ravuth, the university’s vice rector, said Ms. Vityeathika’s crime was defamation.
Contacted last night, Mr. Touch said Ms. Vityeathika had apologized to him in a telephone conversation, and that he had decided not to sue her.
“I did not file a complaint against her because she has apologized already and she called me on the phone this evening already,” Mr. Touch said.
Ms. Vityeathika, who works as a teacher in Kampot province, said last night that the information in the post had been incorrect, explaining that she had originally received the figures from the school’s receptionist, and not from friends—as claimed by school officials.
She said that if additional apologies were necessary to avoid a lawsuit, she was willing to make them.
“I don’t want the school to file a complaint against me, so I will apologize in public on my Facebook,” she said.
In August, Mr. Touch and Khemarak University found themselves at the center of a Facebook controversy when a student, Kong Raya, said he would “make a color revolution to change the regime for Khmer society.”
At the time, Mr. Touch said that “the youths in the school [were] now getting poisoned by political issues.” Mr. Raya remains in provisional detention at Prey Sar prison facing charges of incitement, which carries up to three years’ jail time.
And in September, Phong Seiha, a migrant worker in Thailand, threatened via Facebook to “shoot the head of Sok Touch” due to his involvement in politically sensitive border research. Mr. Seiha was arrested in Thailand and jailed.
Contacted on Monday, Kin Phea, another vice rector at Khemarak University, said administrators had threatened a lawsuit over Ms. Vityeathika’s claims not only to protect “the school’s image,” but also due to the potential for her claims to be used “politically” against Mr. Touch and others involved in the border research.
Mr. Phea, who works with Mr. Touch on the border project, said Ms. Vityeathika’s original post had been shared by at least one “overseas CNRP supporter.”
“For those who are not supporting our work, they feel that we just sell ourselves to the government, but it is not [true],” he said. “Some Facebook accounts, they link this issue with the border issue. So this is a problem that we don’t want to happen.”
(Additional reporting by Phuon Chansereivuth)