WASHINGTON DC - The government is seeking legal action against the only remaining opposition newspaper, claiming it defamed the military in an article it published last month.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, who sent a letter to the editor-in-chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, said the suit against it had been brought in military court, “in order to protect our interests and rights.”
The paper published an article on Nov. 13, in which it quoted Kem Sokha, vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, saying that “election fraud” and the later deployment of the armed forces “robbed victory from the Cambodian people.”
Kem Sokha is currently in the US, fundraising for the opposition and meeting US officials.
Though the government has not said what exactly it wants for redress, military and security officials say the paper could confront issues over national security and criminal defamation, both of which are serious crimes under the new penal code.
Dam Sith, an opposition lawmaker who oversees the paper, said the legal action was a “new style of threat” against the publication.
“If there is legal action, as Mr. Phay Siphan says, then it is a restriction of media freedom, a threat against the freedom of expression of the people,” he said. “And it’s against the constitution, it’s against the rights of the people, and a restriction of the expression of truth.”
Moneaksekar Khmer has long been critical of the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and it has faced a number of lawsuits and suspended publication in the past. One of its reporters, Khim Sambor, was shot and killed in 2008, ahead of national elections.
The US-based Freedom House has ranked Cambodia’s media environment as “not free” for the past two years.
Dam Sith said the paper had not reported anything false and had not violated its code of ethics. The Nov. 13 report in question was an accurate reflection of the situation today, where people have protested the election result, claiming irregularities and fraud with the government’s National Election Committee, he said.
“This means that his interview related to the victory of the people who voted for the Cambodia National Rescue Party were cheated, and [the government] used military forces through moving troops and tanks to Phnom Penh,” he said. “I simply quoted Kem Sokha to publish in my article. It fits with the current situation that the [Rescue Party] and the majority of the people are protesting against fraud committed by the NEC.”
The NEC has denied such charges and handed an election victory to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in July. That decision is still being contested by the opposition, which has refused to join the new government.
Media analyst Moeun Chhean Nariddh told VOA Khmer that journalists should have full freedom to report stories. “Journalists should not be punished or charged because of their reporters, when the reports are based on real facts,” he said.
Phay Siphan said the suit was not a threat to media freedom. He said the editor-in-chief had not replied to other messages from the government, prompting court action.