Cambodian editor sentenced on ‘disinformation’ charge

New York, June 26, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the sentencing today of Hang Chakra, editor-in-chief of the opposition Khmer-language daily Khmer Machas Srok, to one year in prison stemming from his reports on alleged government corruption.

According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a Cambodian court ruled that Hang Chakra violated criminal disinformation laws by publishing a series of articles that accused officials working under Deputy Prime Minister Sok An of corruption. The court also fined the editor 9 million riels (US$2,250), according to SEAPA.

Cambodia’s National Assembly decriminalized defamation in 2007, a move many hoped would end the legal harassment of journalists who reported critically on government affairs. But journalists still risk criminal prosecution and maximum three-year jail terms on disinformation charges, which are outlined in the penal code that was enacted under the former United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Cambodian newspapers, including the Phnom Penh Post, denounced the verdict, and quoted Hang Chakra as saying “this is the cruelest thing to happen to me.”

In a June 4 article in the Phnom Penh Post Hang Chakra said he stood by the story. “When the prosecutor asked me to show them more information, I told them that I stood by the information published in my newspaper and told them that I could not reveal the source of the information.”

The paper pointed out that under the Press Law, publishing “false” information, while a criminal offense, carries only a fine of up to 5 million riels (US$1,250). “But the UNTAC criminal code contains much harsher punishments,” the paper noted, “with offenders facing a prison term of between six months and three years, and a fine of up to 10 million riels.”

UNTAC’s legal authority expired with the promulgation of a new national constitution in 1993; the 1995 Press Law broadly protects press freedoms. But since the decriminalization of defamation, Cambodian officials have resorted to the UNTAC-era criminal code to clamp down on media criticism.

“We urge the relevant Cambodian authorities to release journalist Hang Chakra,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Program Director. “Cambodia’s 1995 Press Law broadly protects press freedom, and rulings such as these run counter to the letter and spirit of that legislation. The court should not rely on outdated laws to prosecute journalists who report on government corruption.” 

It is not clear whether Hang Chakra will appeal. The ruling comes amid a wider crack down on free expression in Cambodia that has targeted government critics including two opposition politicians who have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity so that defamation charges may be brought against them. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The amount of the fine in the second paragraph has been corrected to 9 million riels.