He should know. Hang Chakra, the publisher of the Khmer-language newspaper "Machas Srok", was imprisoned for a year for defamation and criminal disinformation after exposing corruption in the higher echelons of the government. He was released after a royal pardon in April 2010.
"I have not changed since I was imprisoned. I will stick to my position to be critical," he said in an interview at a three-day training of 40 journalists from around Cambodia on reporting freedom of expression, organised by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media.
He admitted that journalists should take more precautions by ensuring their work meets professional standards, but that they should not be afraid of legal constraints that could be used to punish them, such as the Penal Code.
In addition to existing provisions in the Penal Code 1996 that do not support freedom of expression, the government introduced nine new provisions to cover incitement, libel, slander, defamation and contempt, among others, in December 2010.
"Only half of the journalists here know their rights, the rest do not. And because of this, they do not dare to write stories. We need to continue with the training on rights and freedoms for journalists in Cambodia," Hang Chakra said. But he is not discouraged. He thinks younger journalists are beginning to appreciate freedom of expression as a fundamental right and that they will be open to improving their skills and knowledge.
Hang Chakra has been a writer and journalist since the early 1990s and has had to move several times because of threats he received in connection with his articles. He started his own publication, the "Machas Srok", with the help of a sponsor, in order to be able to write freely. That endeavour, however, did not last long as the sponsor was intimidated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party and decided not to continue supporting Hang Chakra.
It was Hang Chakra's ongoing pursuit of stories to expose corruption that led to his arrest and conviction in 2009.
While Cambodia has signed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has constitutional provisions for press freedom, the reality of the situation in the country is far from encouraging. Reporters Without Borders ranked Cambodia 128th out of 174 countries in its annual press freedom index for 2010.
Since his release, Hang Chakra has not faced any renewed threats but he is confronting serious difficulties in keeping his media project alive. "Since my imprisonment, the main challenge has been getting advertisers for the newspaper. I don't know who puts the pressure on the advertisers but it appears that they have been harassed over advertisements placed in my newspaper, which is critical of the government," he said.
SEAPA executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran and the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility's (CMFR) press alerts officer Melanie Pinlac were among the resource people at the training.
Click on the following link to download a SEAPA report on the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia in 2010:
cambodia_report.pdf (22 KB)