Cambodia: Hun Sen drops criminal defamation charges against three journalists

New York, January 24, 2006— The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the decision by Prime Minister Hun Sen Tuesday to drop criminal defamation charges against journalists Mom Sonando, Kem Sokha, and Pa Guon Tieng. The three were released on bail on January 18 after being jailed for criticizing a new border treaty with Vietnam. Similar charges were also dropped against union leader Rong Chhun.

At the time of their release on bail Hun Sen said the journalists would still face trial, but on Tuesday he told reporters he had dropped the charges after the journalists apologized.

CPJ called on the prime minister to ensure that Cambodia eradicated all criminal defamation laws and released others held under them.

“As long as criminal defamation laws remain on the books the government will have a heavy-handed tool to silence critics,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “For example, print journalist Hang Sakhorn has been in jail since December for his reporting on a bribery case that is politically embarrassing to those in power. To resort to charges of criminal defamation in such cases reveals the insecurity of the government in opening the country to a free press.”

Beehive Radio 105 FM journalist Mam Sonando was jailed on October 11, 2005 for critical reports he aired on the controversial border demarcation treaty with Vietnam. On December 31, Kem Sokha, a radio commentator and also president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was arrested on charges related to critical comments about the government written on a banner the rights group publicly displayed during International Human Rights Day on December 10.

Journalist and human rights activist Pa Guon Tieng was arrested on January 4, 2006, by border police while reporting in northeastern Stung Treng province. On January 5, Pa was formally charged as an accomplice to criminal defamation because of his participation in a demonstration in the capital Phnom Penh which criticized the government for the border agreement.

Such laws undermine the legal safeguards for freedom of expression and press freedom enshrined in Cambodia’s 1993 constitution and 1994 Press Act. Criminal defamation laws were promulgated before the passage of the more democratic 1993 charter, and are punishable by one-year prison terms and possible fines up to 10 million riels (about $2,600).