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Freelance journalist sentenced to two years' imprisonment

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The Phnom Penh Municipal Court's ruling on 6 November 2009 convicting freelance journalist Rus Sokhet of "spreading disinformation" and sentencing him to two years' imprisonment has been condemned as an "outrageous misuse" of a criminal lawsuit, media reports said.

According to the "Phnom Penh Post", TV anchor Soy Sopheap accused Rus Sokhet of spreading disparaging messages against him through text messages sent on 8 and 28 October. The messages accused the TV anchor of extorting hush money from a woman charged with firing a pistol in public.

The Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) said in a statement released a day after the conviction that it was "deeply dismayed" by the court's ruling and the fact that the court had used the Kingdom's 1992 UNTAC LAW rather than the more lenient Press Law of 1995 in prosecuting Rus Sokhet.

"The sentence is unjust and disproportional to his offence. It violates the Press Law and the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression," said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies."His text messages were wrong, but he should not be imprisoned," he added.

Sara Colm, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said the case has a chilling effect among government critics. "This year has already seen one person convicted for writing slogans on the walls of his house protesting his own eviction; now it's text messages."

CAPJ Deputy Director Sam Rithy Doung Hak said the sentence meted out to Rus Sokhet means the government is still taking a "heavy-handed" approach to its critics.
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