Civil society leaders push for release of jailed media members
More than 70 Cambodian unions and NGOs are calling for the immediate release of a journalist and a broadcasting executive, calling their recent incarceration a blow to free expression in the Southeast Asian nation.
On 24 October 2005, the civil-society organizations filed a petition calling on the government to release Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive radio FM 105, and journalist Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodia Independent Teachers' Association.
Sonando was arrested on 11 October and charged with defamation. Rong Chhun was arrested four days later on charges of defamation and "incitement of others to commit a criminal offence without the offence being committed."
The charges against Sonando stem from an interview on border issues broadcast on 20 September by his Beehive radio station. For his part, Rong Chhun was charged in connection with a statement issued on 11 October by the Cambodia Watchdog Council, which he and three other council members signed. Like the broadcast on Beehive radio, the council statement criticised the border agreement between the governments of Vietnam and Cambodia, which Prime Minister Hun Sen signed during an October visit to Vietnam.
Defamation under Article 63 of the Provisions Relating to the Judiciary and Criminal Law and Procedure Applicable in Cambodia during the Transitional Period - commonly known as the UNTAC Law - carries a maximum one-year prison sentence. Incitement to commit an offence under Article 63 could warrant up to five years' imprisonment.
In their petition, more than 70 Cambodian unions and groups appealed to the Royal Government of Cambodia to withdraw the complaints. They urged the Municipal Court to "release Mr. Mam Sonando and Mr. Rong Chhun, to drop all lawsuits against those who have been charged and to stop issuing more arrest warrants."
Government spokesperson Khieu Kanharith defended the arrests by saying the government was only protecting itself in its actions against critics of its border policies.
"If the government does not respond, the government will be committing suicide," the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) quoted Kanharith as saying. He said the government is not inclined to drop the charges and stressed that the decision to release the two individuals is up to the court. "This has nothing to do with freedom of expression," he added.
But CAPJ said officials from the American and Canadian embassies in Phnom Penh were present at the NGOs' press conference and expressed concerns for free speech in Cambodia.
CAPJ said Mark Storella, the US Embassy's deputy chief of mission, told reporters that "the recent arrests are part of a trend of wearing down rights and expression in Cambodia."
"These actions have weakened human rights in Cambodia," Storella was further quoted by CAPJ.
Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie was quoted as saying that in light of the detention of the journalists, "Canada will continue motoring Cambodia's stated commitment to democracy."