Cambodian Opposition-affiliated Journalist Jailed for Disinformation

Published on July 9, 2009

On June 26, 2009, opposition-affiliated Khmer Machach Srok newspaper director Hang Chakra was convicted in absentia of disinformation, sentenced to one year in prison, and fined 9 million riel (USD $2,250). Hours later, Hang Chakra was arrested in Cambodia's Northeast Battambang province and taken to Prey Sar prison.

Hang Chakra had originally been summoned to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 3 to answer questions regarding controversial articles published in his newspaper. During Chakra's interview, details of informants inside the Council of Ministers who were the source for the stories remained anonymous with Hang Chakra refusing to identify them to the court, as allowed under Article 2 of the Press Law.

His questioning came after the government filed a complaint in response to the articles published by Khmer Machah Srok in April and May 2009 about Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, also head of the Council of Ministers.

The articles in question detail the alleged demotion and firing due to corruption of officials who worked with Sok An in the Council of Ministers. Upon filing the complaint, the government claimed that the articles could affect political stability in the country.

This was not the first time that Hang Chakra and his newspaper, one of the few media outlets not controlled by the ruling party, have come under fire from the government in recent years:
  In July 2008, an opposition defector and government advisor Sok Pheng threatened to sue Hang Chakra after the paper published an article alleging that Sok Pheng was involved in corrupt activities.
  In January 2008 Hang Chakra was questioned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh filed a defamation lawsuit against him in relation to an article that alleged Cham Prasidh had had an extramarital affair.

Restricting Freedom of Expression
The government and the courts have been criticized repeatedly for resorting to the use of defamation and disinformation charges under the UNTAC Criminal Code (Articles 63 and 62, respectively) to restrict the freedom of expression. Courts' judges also continue to ignore the more recent 1995 Press Law, a civil law that was specifically enacted to regulate the print media; it contains less severe penalties than the UNTAC Criminal Code and offers the media some protections.

Although in May 2006 the UNTAC Criminal Code was amended to remove prison sentences for the charge of defamation after broad national and international pressure. It however still remains a criminal offense for which suspects can be arrested: a person convicted of defamation may still be imprisoned should they be unable to pay the fine, which can be as high as 10 million riel (USD $2,500) a sum most Cambodians would have little hope of being able to pay.

After the amendment to the UNTAC code, the courts favored disinformation over defamation against government critics, the former still leading to imprisonment. While disinformation requires a high standard of proof requiring the prosecution to prove that false information is published with malicious intent and poses a real threat to public peace the reality is different and the courts freely convict journalists with little or no evidence when asked to do so.

LICADHO urges the government to remove both criminal defamation and disinformation charges entirely from the UNTAC Criminal Code as well as insuring the absence of such charges in the new draft of the Criminal Code currently before the National Assembly.

The government is also urged to cease pressuring the courts to restrict the freedom of expression in Cambodia. In particular, the court needs to cease its misuse of the UNTAC Criminal Code in favor of the Press Law to prosecute members of the media, and to do so independently.

As the Cambodian Constitution guarantees, all Cambodians have the right to express their opinions and to freely participate in debate about government policies and practices.

UPDATE August 11, 2009: The Appeal Court upheld the conviction of the Hang Chakra confirming the 1 year prison sentence and 9 million riel fine.