Harsh defamation ruling in Cambodia has broader implications

New York, July 24, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the hefty financial damages imposed on a blogger in a defamation case in Cambodia. The ruling could have a detrimental effect on online commentary in the country.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday convicted Rupert Winchester, a British journalist based in Phnom Penh who runs a personal blog, “The Mighty Penh,” of defamation and ordered him to pay 8 million riel (US$2,000) in fines and 100 million riel (US$25,000) in compensation to Etienne Chevenier, a French property developer, according to the independent daily Phnom Penh Post and local journalists who spoke to CPJ by email.

Chevenier sued the blogger under Article 305 of the criminal code in connection with a June 4, 2013, post on his blog that said the development company intended to tear down a colonial-era building and build a high-rise. Chevenier denied the allegation. According to the lawsuit, Winchester also made the allegation in an article for the Phnom Penh Post, where he was working at the time, but the paper retracted the story. Winchester removed the post from his blog on June 7, 2013.

Winchester told local media he would appeal the decision.

In a July 13 statement, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said a conviction would “set a bad precedent for blogs and personal commentary on social media in Cambodia.”

“This case could have a chilling effect on online speech in Cambodia, which is already at risk,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Cambodian courts should dismiss this overly punitive decision against Rupert Winchester on appeal.”

Cambodia has a long record of using both civil and criminal courts to harass journalists for reporting.

According to press reports, Cambodia has drafted a cybercrime law that press freedom groups say could be used to suppress online speech in the country. A draft of the law was leaked earlier this year, although the government has denied the existence of such a bill, according to the U.S.-funded Voice of America Khmer. Under Article 28 of the leaked document, an individual would face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 6 million riels for engaging in activities in publications that are “deemed to be non-factual which slanders or undermined the integrity of any governmental agencies, ministries” or that are “deemed damaging to the moral and cultural values of the society.”