US embassy cable - 01PHNOMPENH1740

CAMBODIAN FOREIGN MINISTER WINS LIBEL CASE AGAINST NEWSPAPER

Identifier: 01PHNOMPENH1740
Wikileaks: View 01PHNOMPENH1740 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Phnom Penh
Created: 2001-10-23 10:04:00
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Tags: KPAO PHUM OIIP CB
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
R 231004Z OCT 01
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 6928
INFO ASEAN COLLECTIVE
USCINCPAC HONOLULU HI
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PHNOM PENH 001740 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: KPAO, PHUM, OIIP, CB 
SUBJECT: CAMBODIAN FOREIGN MINISTER WINS LIBEL CASE AGAINST 
NEWSPAPER 
 
1. SUMMARY:  A RECENT DEFAMATION/LIBEL CASE AGAINST THE 
COUNTRY'S LEADING ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NEWSPAPER, THE CAMBODIA 
DAILY, HAS JOURNALISTS CONCERNED THAT THE GOVERNMENT OR 
POWERFUL INDIVIDUALS CAN MAKE USE OF ANTI-DEFAMATION LAWS 
AND PLIANT COURTS TO INTIMIDATE JOURNALISTS AND PREVENT THEM 
FROM PUBLISHING CONTROVERSIAL STORIES.  WHILE THERE IS NO 
CLEAR PATTERN OF SUCH ABUSE OF PRESS FREEDOM, FOREIGN 
MINISTER HOR NAMHONG WON A DEFAMATION SUIT IN SEPTEMBER 
AGAINST THREE CAMBODIA DAILY JOURNALISTS WHO PUBLISHED A 
QUOTE LINKING HIM TO ATROCITIES COMMITTED DURING THE KHMER 
ROUGE REGIME. USING THE UNTAC-PERIOD CRIMINAL CODE RATHER 
THAN THE MORE RECENT PRESS LAW, THE COURT FOUND THE 
JOURNALISTS GUILTY AND ORDERED THEM TO PRINT A RETRACTION 
AND PAY TOTAL FINES OF ABOUT $7,500 TO HOR NAMHONG AND THE 
STATE.  SOME JOURNALISTS AND LEGAL OBSERVERS CHARGE THAT THE 
COURT PROCEEDINGS WERE IRREGULAR, AND BOTH SIDES HAVE 
ANNOUNCED THEY WILL APPEAL THE RULING.  END SUMMARY. 
 
2. IN JANUARY 2001, AT THE TIME OF THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE 
OVER THE KHMER ROUGE TRIBUNAL LAW, THE CAMBODIA DAILY 
PUBLISHED TWO ARTICLES LINKING CAMBODIAN FOREIGN MINISTER 
HOR NAMHONG TO THE KHMER ROUGE REGIME AND KILLINGS AT THE 
INFAMOUS TUOL SLENG PRISON. ACCORDING TO QUOTES ATTRIBUTED 
TO FUNCINPEC PARTY SENATOR KEO BUNTHOUK, HOR NAMHONG, AS THE 
INMATE LEADER OF THE KHMER ROUGE RE-EDUCATION CENTER AND 
PRISON AT BOEUNG TRABEK, SENT FELLOW INMATES TO THE KHMER 
ROUGE INTERROGATION CENTER AND PRISON AT TUOL SLENG, AND 
THESE FELLOW INMATES WERE NEVER SEEN AGAIN.  SENATOR KEO 
BUNTHOUK WAS ALSO A PRISONER IN BOEUNG TRABEK. HOR NAMHONG 
IS KNOWN FOR HIS SENSITIVITY ABOUT ALLEGATIONS CONCERNING 
HIS ROLE AT BOEUNG TRABEK, AND EVEN FILED A LIBEL SUIT IN 
FRANCE AGAINST KING SIHANOUK OVER A SIMILAR CHARGE PRIOR TO 
THE REESTABLISHMENT OF THE MONARCHY IN CAMBODIA. 
 
3. HOR NAMHONG REPLIED THAT AS THE INMATE PRISON LEADER HE 
HAD NO POWER TO SEND OTHER PRISONERS TO TUOL SLENG. 
CLAIMING DEFAMATION AND LIBEL, HE FILED SUIT IN PHNOM PENH 
MUNICIPAL COURT AGAINST THE CAMBODIA DAILY'S U.S. CITIZEN 
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, A U.S. CITIZEN REPORTER AND A CAMBODIAN 
REPORTER.  THE TWO U.S. CITIZENS SUBSEQUENTLY LEFT THE 
COUNTRY, FOR REASONS NOT CONNECTED TO THE LAW SUIT. 
 
4. DURING THE TRIAL IN SEPTEMBER 2001, SENATOR KEO BUNTHOUK 
TESTIFIED THAT SHE HAD NEVER MADE THE COMMENTS TO THE 
REPORTER LINKING HOR NAMHONG TO KHMER ROUGE KILLINGS.  HOR 
NAMHONG ALSO PRODUCED TWO OTHER WITNESSES WHO TESTIFIED THAT 
THEY WERE AT THE BOEUNG TRABEK PRISON AND THE FOREIGN 
MINISTER HAD NO POWER TO ORDER THE KILLING OF OTHER INMATES. 
THE CAMBODIA DAILY ARGUED THAT THE INFORMATION PRINTED IN 
THE ARTICLE WAS ACCURATE AND THAT QUOTES TAKEN FROM THE 
SENATOR DURING DEBATE COULD NOT BE CONSIDERED LIBEL. 
 
5.  DURING THE TRIAL, THE JUDGE REFUSED A DEFENSE REQUEST TO 
TRY THE CASE UNDER THE PRESS LAW, RATHER THAN THE OLDER AND 
LESS APPROPRIATE CRIMINAL CODE OF THE U.N. TRANSITIONAL 
AUTHORITY IN CAMBODIA (UNTAC).  HOWEVER, THE MUNICIPAL COURT 
JUDGE ISSUED HER VERDICT BASED ON BOTH LAWS.   ON SEPTEMBER 
21, THE JUDGE RULED AGAINST THE JOURNALISTS, AND ORDERED 
THEM TO PAY $6,250 DAMAGES TO THE FOREIGN MINISTER AND 
$1,250 IN FINES TO THE STATE.  IN ADDITION, THE JOURNALISTS 
WERE ORDERED TO PAY TO HAVE THE VERDICT PRINTED IN THE 
CAMBODIA DAILY, RASMEI KAMPUCHEA AND KOH SANTEPHEAP 
NEWSPAPERS.  FAILURE TO PAY THE FINES AND COST OF PRINTING 
THE VERDICT WOULD RESULT IN JAIL SENTENCES. 
 
6. THE DECISION OF THE COURT WAS WIDELY CONDEMNED BY 
JOURNALISTS AND LEGAL EXPERTS, WHO QUESTIONED THE FAIRNESS 
OF THE PROCEEDINGS.  EDITORS FROM THE CAMBODIA DAILY CHARGE 
THAT THE JUDGE APPLIED THE LAW SELECTIVELY, AND THAT SHE 
REFUSED TO ADMIT RELEVANT EVIDENCE PRESENTED BY THE DEFENSE, 
SUCH AS TAPE RECORDINGS THAT WOULD ALLEGEDLY HAVE PROVED 
THAT SENATOR BUNTHOUK DID INDEED MAKE THE STATEMENT THE 
PAPER ATTRIBUTED TO HER.  THEY ALSO CLAIM THAT THE JUDGE 
WENT OUT AND OBTAINED EVIDENCE OF HER OWN, IN VIOLATION OF 
HER MANDATE.  THE LAWYER FOR HOR NAMHONG WAS ALSO 
DISSATISFIED WITH THE AMOUNT OF THE PUNITIVE DAMAGES, AS 
THEY WERE SEEKING USD $1 MILLION.  LAWYERS FOR BOTH SIDES 
HAVE STATED THEY WILL APPEAL THE RULING, AND HAVE UNTIL 
NOVEMBER 22, 2001, TO DO SO. (NOTE: THE CAMBODIA DAILY IS 
THE COUNTRY'S LEADING ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEWSPAPER, AND IS 
WIDELY READ BY POLITICAL AND CIVIL SOCIETY LEADERS. IT IS 
OWNED BY FORMER NEWSWEEK CORRESPONDENT AND AMERICAN CITIZEN 
BERNARD KRISHER, AND FUNCTIONS AS A NON-GOVERNMENT 
ORGANIZATION WITH THE STATED GOALS OF UPGRADING THE SKILLS 
OF LOCAL JOURNALISTS AND STRENGTHENING FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. 
THE EDITOR OF THE PAPER TOLD EMBASSY THAT THEY ARE WILLING 
TO PAY FOR AN APPEAL IN ORDER TO PUBLICIZE THE CASE AND 
PROMOTE PRESS FREEDOM.  END NOTE.) 
 
7. COMMENT: THERE IS NO CLEAR PATTERN OF ABUSE OF ANTI- 
DEFAMATION LAWS AGAINST THE PRESS IN CAMBODIA.  HOWEVER, 
JOURNALISTS ARE CONCERNED THAT THIS CASE COULD ESTABLISH A 
NEGATIVE PRECEDENT, IN WHICH THE GOVERNMENT OR POWERFUL 
INDIVIDUALS WILL USE FEAR OF FINANCIAL RUIN TO KEEP THE 
PRESS FROM PUBLISHING EMBARRASSING STORIES.  MANY TOP 
POLITICIANS AND GOVERNMENT LEADERS HAVE THE FINANCIAL MEANS 
TO BRING LAWSUITS AGAINST PUBLICATIONS, AND THE POWER TO 
INFLUENCE THE WEAK AND NOTORIOUSLY CORRUPT JUDICIAL SYSTEM 
IN THEIR FAVOR.  MOST NEWSPAPERS, ON THE OTHER HAND, ARE 
ONLY MARGINALLY FINANCIALLY VIABLE EVEN UNDER THE BEST OF 
CIRCUMSTANCES, AND MAY FIND THEY MUST AVOID CONTROVERSIAL 
SUBJECTS OR RISK EXPENSIVE LAWSUITS THAT THEY CANNOT AFFORD. 
 
ARVIZU 

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