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Cambodia: Journalist charged with defamation

Ros Sokhet, a journalist well known in Cambodia for his contribution to the English language media, was arrested on October 30th and charged with defamation. On November 6th he was convicted of spreading corruption accusations about news anchor and newspaper publisher Soy Sopheap and sentenced to two years in prison.

Was it because he reported on corruption in Cambodia’s media or because he was corrupt himself?

Sokhet admitted sending the following four text messages to Soy Sopheap in October, as reported by The Cambodian Auckland Association Inc. (CAAI) News Media on October 30th.

“How much money did you demand from Khe Dara, her husband said that amount US$ 5,000, why were you so bad in action?”

“Khe Dara’s file was a little bit, but you extended to large, I received a report from Tong Seng who was threatened money by you as well as other members of CPP, all of them were very unhappy whatever you acted”

“Ok, all of CPP’s members were not happy, they want to destroy you. Moreover, CTN’s boss also did not welcome you”

“Tong Seng asked me…?”

Khe Dara is serving a prison sentence for firing a gun in public. Her husband Hang Mong Heng claimed that two journalists attempted to extort $7000 from him for not reporting the story, a statement he has since retracted. Tong Seng is a governor for the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).

Why did Sokhet send those text messages to Sopheap? Why did Sopheap consider it a matter to refer to the police?

He said it was because,

“I heard some people talked about him [Soy Sopheap], some journalists criticized him at Atalantic shop [called Arun Reah], so I decided to inform him as soon as possible.”

The October issue of Southeast Asia Globe printed an article on corruption among Cambodian reporters, editors, publishers and TV news anchors. In that article, ironically penned by Sokhet himself, he writes that from the Atlantic coffee shop,

“journalists will make a phone call for an appointment and then set a price for spiking (deleting) the story or changing the facts to fit a victim’s preferred profile.”

Cambodian officials and publishers acknowledged that corruption exists among journalists, but none have taken responsibility. Pen Samithi, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, said,

“I recognize that there are many corrupt journalists and that only way to solve this problem is for the ministry of information to be strict in issuing a license to open a newspaper.”

Samithi is the editor and chief of pro-CPP newspaper Ramsey Kampushea. Meatophoum newspaper publisher Om Chandara also wants tighter regulation, and criticized the ministry of information,

“It hands out passes and registration to untrained journalists who go around exporting money everywhere, from capital to provinces.”

The minister of information, Khieu Kanharith, responded by passing the buck, “It [corruption] is because the authorities in the provinces are weak.” Sokhet quoted Soy Sopheap, “I am not corrupt and I have never received money,” in the same piece.

There is a great deal of foreign news coverage in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post gained fame for its war reporting in the 90s, and the Cambodia Daily, a non-profit project of Bernie Krishner’s, strives to not only produce high-quality news, but also to train young journalists. The Southeast Asia Globe, published by former employees of Germany’s Focus magazine, is a full color monthly with offices in Cambodia and Thailand. All employ Khmer and foreign staff. The Mirror translates Khmer language new articles into English and posts them online, while the anonymous author of weblog Details are Sketchy provides insightful commentary on the Cambodia and her media.

Cambodia’s press freedom rank by Reporters Without Borders improved in 2009 to the 117th most corrupt out of 175 countries polled, up from a rank of 126th in 2008. This year at least one journalist was arrested for reporting on corruption, not counting Sokhet, while last year two opposition journalists were killed in the run up to the 2008 national election.

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