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Jailed journalist denied bail; court withdraws controversial order restricting journalists' access to court proceedings

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a SEAPA alert with information provided for by the Cambodian Association for Protection of Journalists (CAPJ):

On 3 November 2005, Cambodia's court of appeal refused to grant bail to a radio journalist charged with defaming the government during a program about his country's border disputes with Vietnam.

Saly Theara told the courtroom that allowing the suspect to stay out of detention would harm the entire investigation of the case, which has just begun.

Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, was arrested on 11 October in connection with his September interview of Sean Peng Se, chairman of the France-based Cambodian Committee on Border Treaties with Vietnam.

Sonando's lawyer Hong Kimsuon said they had appealed to the Supreme Court to grant bail to Sonando, who he said would rather be charged with a misdemeanor than a criminal offense.

On 24 October, civil society organizations representing 70 unions and NGOs in Cambodia filed a petition calling on the government to release Sonando, and Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodia Independent Teachers' Association.

Besides Sonando and Rong Chhun, at least six others were arrested and charged with defamation over border issues. The charges come amid a broad crackdown on anyone Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen believes has accused him of giving up Cambodian land or selling it to foreigners.

Hun Sen's lawyer Doung Loenug said he has brought an additional charge of broadcasting illegal information against Sonando on 17 October.

Meanwhile, in another development, Cambodia's Municipal Court retracted a controversial order restricting journalists' access to court proceedings. In a letter published in the 27 October edition of the local daily "Rasmei Kampuchea", court director Chev Keng stressed that the order was never meant to ban reporters from covering court hearings, but was merely intended to keep order in the courtrooms and to protect the privacy and rights of parties in civil lawsuits.

The order has now been rationalized in a compromise that allows reporters access to court proceedings while guarding against reckless coverage of cases that may violate citizens' rights to privacy. As of 31 October, journalists had regained access to the courtrooms, but they are now required to leave their cameras and tape recorders with the court's security guard.

On 21 October, the municipal court issued an order banning media's access to courthouses. The order particularly targeted reporters with cameras and tape recorders, requiring them to seek formal permission before gaining entry into courtrooms. The order still granted media workers access to the court's compound, but Cambodian journalist groups were quick to denounce the policy as violating the rights of the press.

Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said journalists should have the right to report on all aspects of the judicial process. He told local papers that the constitution and the 1995 press law recognize that most court hearings "are public events where everyone can attend without prior permission."

The Cambodian press law allows journalists to report on judicial processes, including court procedures, except for cases specifically ordered closed to the public by the court. But the law bans journalists from revealing the identity of parties to civil lawsuits touching on paternity, marriage, divorce or child custody. The law also restricts the press from revealing the identity of people under 18 involved in any civil or criminal lawsuits, or of rape and molestation victims.

Chev Keng had said the controversial order was prompted by an earlier incident in which journalists took pictures of the parties in a lawsuit during a trial without permission. He said photographing in court must be specifically endorsed by the court, or journalists must obtain the permission of the subjects of photographs.

Last week, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith asked Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to clarify the 21 October order, prompting its retraction.

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