Cambodian authorities are moving to file a lawsuit against a pro-opposition newspaper publisher after his paper stood by its article accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of using the military to illegally gain votes in recent national polls.
A government spokesman said Monday that the Ministry of Defense is pursuing a complaint against the Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper after it had refused to run a clarification requested by Hun Sen’s cabinet on the report last month.
The paper’s publisher Dam Sith is a lawmaker-elect of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has challenged official results of the July national elections and accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of fraud.
The paper published a story on Nov. 13 quoting CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha as saying in an interview with a foreign media outlet that the government had used the military to “steal” votes in the July 28 election in which the CPP was declared victor.
Dam Sith said the case over the article was the latest of many attempts by the authorities to intimidate him into shutting the publication down because of its criticism against the government.
“The newspaper has received threats for many years and this is the newest one,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They are using the case as a pretext to try to shut down the Moneaksekar Khmer,” he said.
Council of Ministers’ request refused
The paper’s article had first prompted a protest from the Council of Ministers—Prime Minster Hun Sen’s cabinet—asking it to run a clarification about the voting fraud accusation.
The paper declined to do so, and after waiting nearly three weeks, the Council of Ministers transferred the case to the Ministry of Defense to pursue a lawsuit, council spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA.
The case needed to be handled by the Ministry of Defense because the article had affected the “reputation” of the armed forces, he said, adding that the case was being examined by the military court.
“The case is out of our hands now. We have sent the case to Ministry of Defense lawyers who deal with the military court,” he said.
It remains unclear what kind of lawsuit the paper could face.
Ou Virak, director of the local advocacy group the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that in the recent case the Moneaksekar Khmer could face either a defamation suit or a lawsuit related to harming national security.
Either way, it would not be appropriate for any lawsuit against Dam Sith to come from the military court, since he is a civilian, he said.
“Regardless of whether the lawsuit is about defamation or national security, it is wrong to use the military court,” he told RFA.
In 2008, Dam Sith spent a week in prison after being accused by the foreign minister of disseminating false information.
A month later, Khem Sambo, a hard-hitting reporter for the paper, and his son were shot and killed after the paper published an article critical of high-level corruption.
The government has objected to CNRP’s repeated calls for an independent probe into claims of voter fraud in the elections.
The opposition says it has been robbed of victory and has boycotted parliament over the dispute.