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In Journalists Acquittal, Lessons All Around

Last week’s acquittal of a Radio Free Asia reporter accused of disinformation has been welcomed by advocacy groups as well as the UN, but observers warn that a number of journalists remain in jail for doing their jobs.

Immediately following the decision of Takeo provincial court, which had tried radio journalist Sok Serey after a story on local corruption, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights touted the decision as “encouraging development for freedom of expression.”

Ou Virak, president of the organization, told VOA Khmer on Tuesday that all courts should consider the possibility of malicious intent when charges are brought against journalists.

In Sok Serey’s case, it was a local official accused of corruption who brought the suit, which carries a criminal charge under Cambodian law. Takeo court officials cited a lack of evidence and malicious intent as the reasons behind the acquittal.

“Judgments in past cases did not take into account that intent,” Ou Virak said. “Only the court in Takeo did.”

The UN’s office for human rights in Phnom Penh called the decision “a significant step towards the protection of the right of human rights defenders and journalists to freely and peacefully express themselves on matters of public interest, without fear of reprisals”.

Sok Serey, two members of the Cambodia-Muslim community and two local rights activists were charged with disinformation following their interviews alleging that the local Muslim imam, Riem Math, and two other members of the committee were involved in corruption.

Ny San, a community member, was subsequently jailed as a result of the case. He will serve five months in jail and was fined $250.

While the decision itself received praise, Reporters Without Borders called for the release of Hang Chakra, the editor of Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, who remains in jail after publishing a story alleging corruption within the powerful Council of Ministers, which is led by Cabinet Minister Sok An.

Reporters Without Borders also called on a re-investigation into the murder of journalist Khim Sambor, who was gunned down along with his son in Phnom Penh ahead of 2008’s July elections.

For Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, Sok Serey’s case served as a reminder that journalists much maintain professionalism and care.

“Long-working journalists will know what to be cautious about,” he said. “This includes keeping their records and finding a balance [in reporting], and the only way to protect themselves is to increase their adherence to facts.”