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State muzzles critical voices; civil groups join forces

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on 23 September, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy accused his government of targeting journalists and members of civil society in its repression of critical voices, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). Meanwhile, civil society groups in Cambodia are working to set up a media defense network that would provide legal aid to journalists.

Speaking at a panel discussion organised by SEAPA in collaboration with the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok, Rainsy said the Hun Sen administration is intent on controlling what journalists, legislators, civil society officers and even their lawyers, have to say, reports SEAPA.

According to SEAPA, on 26 June, Hang Chakra, the publisher and editor-in-chief of "Khmer Machas Srok" was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 9 million Riel or (about US$2250) for "disinformation" and "dishonouring public officials".

On 8 July, charges against journalist Sam Dith were dropped after he wrote a formal letter of apology addressed to Hun Sen and agreed to a "voluntary" resolution to stop publishing his newspaper, "Moneaksika Khmer" ("Khmer Conscience"). Last year, Dith was hit with criminal charges for an article that suggested links between the Cambodian Foreign Minister and the past Khmer Rouge regime.

More recently, on 22 September,"Cambodian Daily" editor-in-chief Kevin Doyle and reporter Neou Vannarin were convicted of defamation and each fined US$1,000 for an article that criticised the military.

But civil society groups are fighting back. According to local news, Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said on 28 September that his organisation is joining forces with Legal Aid of Cambodia, Cambodian Justice Initiative, Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ) and the Cambodian Center for Independent Media to establish a network of lawyers that would help defend journalists in court. An obstacle to fair trials is that most lawyers are not willing to take on the state to defend journalists and only a few have enough knowledge of media laws, reports SEAPA.

In Bangkok, Rainsy added that while the state harasses some journalists and political leaders with lawsuits, others are quietly killed. Duong Hak Sam Rithy, vice president of CAPJ, told SEAPA that 10 journalists have been murdered by government forces over the years.

In September, ARTICLE 19 analysed the draft Cambodian Penal Code, which contains numerous restrictions on freedom of expression, including the possibility of being banned from practising journalism. The Code also retains criminal defamation and imprisonment for some forms of defamation.

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