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Cablegate: Cambodian Foreign Minister Wins Libel Case Against

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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