Opposition party officials have filed a lawsuit against the Khmer-language daily newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) after it printed anonymous sources’ allegations that the Sam Rainsy Party was selling candidate nominations for next year’s national elections for $20,000 to $80,000 each, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said on Sunday.
The lawsuit was filed on Friday with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Sam Rainsy said. Court officials could not be reached on Friday to confirm this.
“I have never sold seats like other parties have done,” Sam Rainsy said Sunday. “I had to file a complaint because their story was an attempt to discredit our party.”
Rasmei Kampuchea editor Pen Pheng said the story did not intend to accuse the party of benefiting from the sale of candidate positions. Rather, he said, the allegations came from a credible source and the newspaper was obliged to report them, in honor of the public’s right to know.
The article was not one-sided, Pen Pheng pointed out. “I’m not worried, because I published a balanced article,” he said. “I included both sides”—supporters and critics of the Sam Rainsy Party.
The offending article, published Friday on the front page, was headlined “Unhappy officials of the SRP criticize Sam Rainsy.” The lawsuit accuses Pen Pheng of intending to damage the opposition party’s reputation and of defamation.
Pen Pheng said he had heard about the lawsuit but had not yet been summoned to court. But he said he was convinced he would win the case. “My article was balanced and meets professional journalism standards. As a journalism professional, I have the right to conceal the identity of my sources,” he said.
Rasmei Kampuchea published the same headline twice—once at the beginning of the month, before Pchum Ben, and again Friday. The second story included more details about the seat-selling allegations but the same quotes from the opposition side as the first story, according to Eng Chhay Eang, the party’s secretary-general.
“They interviewed me for the first issue…. [For the second article], they took the same things I said before and republished them without consulting me again.”
Defamation suits against Cambodia’s relatively free but often irresponsible press have become more common in recent months. Officials say they have to protect their reputations against damaging, false allegations; newspapers and journalists’ groups say the media are tacitly intimidated by lawsuits brought by the powerful.
Keo Sothea, editor of the pro-SRP Voice of Khmer Youth newspaper, fell victim to such a suit earlier this year when Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara disputed its report—again from an unidentified source—that he had paid $2 million for a luxury home in Australia.
The newspaper was tried in absentia earlier this month and Keo Sothea was ordered to pay 10 million riel (about $2,500) to Chea Sophara and 1 million riel (about $250) in fines, Keo Sothea said.
Earlier, in April, Voice of Khmer Youth was ordered to pay $17,500 in damages for defaming the Mong Reththy Group and RCAF Division 44 in an article about logging. The company later dropped the case. Despite his losing record in defamation suits, Keo Sothea said he expected the newspaper, not the litigant, to win the Sam Rainsy-Rasmei Kampuchea suit.
“Rasmei Kampuchea is a pro-Cambodian People’s Party newspaper,” he said. “The municipal court will favor Rasmei Kampuchea because it is controlled by the CPP. But if CPP officials have conflicts with opposition newspapers, the government officials will win the cases.”