The Voice of America said Thursday it was concerned that contempt of court proceedings against its Khmer-language service by the Khmer Rouge tribunal would create a “chilling effect” on local journalists trying to cover the UN-backed court.
The tribunal’s investigating judges said Wednesday they had begun proceedings against the service for interference with the administration of justice, after VOA Khmer broadcast and published a series of interviews with three suspects in two controversial cases at the court, directly quoting confidential documents submitted by the prosecution in November 2008.
“Anyone intending further disclosure of confidential court documents is hereby warned that his case could be transferred to the National Prosecutor,” an unsigned statement from the judges’ office said.
Local and international organizations questioned the motives behind the warning, while in its own statement Thursday, the Voice of America, a US-funded international broadcaster, said the warning warranted concern.
“Voice of America is concerned about the potential ‘chilling effect’ this threat by the co-investigating judges could have on coverage of an important international story,” the agency said. “Some rights groups have accused judges at the tribunal of failing to fully investigate cases brought by prosecutors.”
Cases 003 and 004, which accuse five more suspects of atrocity crimes under the Khmer Rouge, have divided the court, with investigating judges Siegfried Blunk and You Bunleng coming under scrutiny for their swift closure of their investigation into the former and a pending investigation into the latter. International prosecutors and many Cambodian victims of the regime say they want those cases further pursued.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly, publicly opposed indictments in the two cases. His position has been echoed by a number of Cambodian tribunal and government officials.
Information on cases 003 and 004 remain officially confidential, but details of the prosecution submissions have appeared in international media in recent months.
Victims of the regime who want to file grievances with the court say there is little they can do without specific information on the suspects, their alleged crimes and the sites where they allegedly took place. The inclusion of victims in legal proceedings for the sake of national reconciliation is one mandate of the court.
“Voice of America believes the warning issued by the co-investigating judges is unwarranted,” VOA said in its statement. “The Voice of America has a journalistic and legal responsibility to provide balanced and comprehensive coverage of important issues. The careful use of confidential sources and documents that provide important insight into critical issues is a well-established practice by independent journalists the world over.”
“Furthermore,” it said, “the documents in question have been used by other news organizations,” a reference to reports by the US-based Christian Science Monitor and the New Zealand-based website Scoop.
VOA Khmer reporter Sok Khemara, who interviewed suspects Im Chaem, Meas Muth and Ta An at their rural homes in July and August, said his work had held up “the universal principles of journalists” to serve the public interest.
All three suspects, who, according to the prosecution, belonged to the top levels of Khmer Rouge decision-making, denied they were responsible for mass crimes committed under the regime. The investigating judges said in a statement last month they held doubts the suspects belonged to the senior-most leadership the court is meant to investigate.
“I think that revealing the truth for the public is the duty of the journalist,” Sok Khemara said. “In addition, muzzling a journalist’s work weakens the freedom of expression, human rights and democracy. That is what the leaders of many repressive countries around the world want.”
The contempt of court proceedings represent the first time the court has actively pursued a media organization for its reporting on the tribunal. It remains unclear how the proceedings will move forward or what options are available to the court for censure of the reports. Legal experts say the rules of the court are vague, and the investigating judges gave no details in their statement Wednesday. A court spokesman said Friday that the judges were “working with the court’s legal section.”
The legal proceedings, meanwhile, have raised questions about the court’s work and journalists’ role in covering it, as the tribunal prepares for a complex trial of four leaders already in custody—ideologue Nuon Chea, nominal head Khieu Samphan, foreign minister Ieng Sary and social affairs minister Ieng Thirith—in Case 002.
In a statement Thursday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said the court appeared to be “bowing to political pressure” to wrap up the court’s work after that case.
“The importance of contempt of court proceedings should not be underestimated,” the center’s president, Ou Virak, said. “In this case however, the evidence suggests that these threats by the [investigating judges] are less motivated by a desire to ensure the sanctity of their investigations and the rights of the individuals under investigation than they are with a desire to gag the media and others who look at the court with a critical eye.”
The general public is becoming “increasingly convinced” the judges are seeking the closure of the court without prosecuting Cases 003 and 004, he said. “Against this background, it is unsurprising that the media should seek to get hold of and publish information relating to investigations which are widely believed to have stalled for political reasons.”
Were the office of investigating judges truly concerned with preventing leaks, he said, “it must start by regaining the public’s confidence,” which could only be done through “frank discussions” over the two cases and “by keeping the public adequately informed.”
In a statement Thursday, Reporters Without Borders condemned the judges’ decision.
“It is shocking to imagine that an international court supported by the United Nations, one that took more than 10 years to set up, could prosecute a news outlet that was just doing its best to cover its work,” the group said. “We urge the court to abandon these proceedings against Voice of America and to restrict itself to the mandate it received under the accords between the Cambodian government and the United Nations.”