The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has concerns for the state of press freedom in South East Asia following a wake of criminal defamation cases across the region.
As part of its global campaign to decriminalise defamation the IFJ has called on authorities in Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia and Thailand to remove defamation from their criminal codes.
“Governments across the Asia-Pacific are using outdated criminal defamation laws to silence the media, “ said IFJ president Christopher warren.
“We’re calling for the promotion and use of reasonable civil remedies, which protect reputations while also ensuring protection of journalists’ freedom of expression,” said Warren.
The IFJ is concerned over the following incidents across the region:
Cambodia -Prime Minister pledges to drop criminal defamation charges
On January 24, Cambodia Prime Minister, Sam Dech Hun Sen pledged to drop criminal defamation charges against five activists; Kem Sokha, president, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights; Pa Ngoun Teang, journalist and deputy director, CCHR; Mam Sonando, owner, Beehive Radio Station; Rong Chhun, president, Cambodian Independent; and Yeng Virak, executive director, Community Legal Education Center. The five accused are currently in Prey Sar prison after being charged with criminal defamation by Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The charges were brought following the display of a critical banner of the prime minister on International Human Rights Day celebrations on December 10, 2005.
The prime minister announced the decision to drop the charges on January 24 following a conciliatory statement and letter written by the accused to the prime minister.
The prime minister then made the promise to drop all future charges against those who would also sign the agreement.
If convicted the accused would have faced up to one year’s jail time and up to a ten million riel fine. (USD 2,600).
According to the IFJ's affiliate, the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), Cambodian authorities have filed at least nine criminal defamation cases in recent months to silence critics.
The IFJ said these detentions formed part of a crackdown launched by the Hun Sen Government against its critics in October 2005, to silence criticism of the government's special border agreement with Vietnam.
While the IFJ welcomes the back down by the prime minister, it remains concerned that the charges were dropped following an apology by the accused.
“Criticism of public figures is not only a right held by journalists in a democratic society but it is a necessary check and balance to ensure the democratic process,” said Warren.
Indonesia -Press freedom threatened by new verdict against press group Tempo
On Friday January 6, 2006 the Jakarta High Court upheld a verdict against Indonesian journalist, Goenawan Mohamad and press group PT Tempo Inti Media Harian for the defamation of powerful businessman Tomy Winata.
The court ordered the payment of one billion Rupiah (USD 106,000) and the publication of apologies in two national dailies.
The case was based on a statement made by journalist and founder of Tempo, Goenawan Mohamad in March 2003. The statement warned of the need to “prevent the Republic of Indonesia from falling into the hands of thugs, and also prevent it from falling into Tomy Winata’s hands”.
A few days earlier, a crowd of Winata supporters invaded the offices of Tempo in Jakarta, injuring several journalists, in response to a previous article linking the controversial businessman with a fire in a textile market.
The IFJ condemned the sentencing and the hefty fine as unacceptable and an impingement of press freedom.
Goenawan and Tempo Daily are planning to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.
Winata, who has many political connections, has successfully lodged a score of complaints against the daily Koran Tempo and the weekly Tempo for “character assassination”, and in March 2004 journalist Bambang Harymurti was sentenced to one year in prison for an article investigating Winata’s questionable business activities.
Thailand – Date Set for Criminal Defamation Lawsuit
After more than two years of trial, the Thailand Criminal Court announced that on March 15, 2006 it will give its much-awaited verdict in the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by telecom conglomerate Shin Corp against Thai press freedom activist Supinya Klangnarong and the Thai Post.
If convicted of criminal defamation, these defendants face up to two years in jail.
The lawsuit relates to an article published in July 2003 where Klangnarong alleged Shin Corp’s growing profits were linked to its ties to the Thai Rak Thai Government headed by Shin Corp founder, Thaksin Shinawatra. Shin Corp was founded by Thaksin and owned by members of his family until sold to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings on January 24.
Filing lawsuits has been an increasingly popular way to silence critics of the Thaksin Shinawatra Government, to the detriment of the freedom of Thailand’s press.
This verdict is important because it will likely set a precedent for other lawsuits against newspapers and critics of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The paper is currently facing 30-plus libel cases lodged by various parties – including five by the prime minister, his sister and Shin Corp – with potential damages totalling almost Bt2 billion (approximately USD 50 million).
East Timor - New code in East Timor threatens free press
The IFJ is alarmed over the media situation in East Timor after prime minister Mari Altakiri signed an executive decree approving a penal code that criminalises defamation on December 6, 2005, which will enter into force in early 2006.
The new penal code contains several harsh sections that will have a detrimental impact on journalism in East Timor. Under Article 173, individuals will face three years' imprisonment for defaming public officials, and the code contains no limits on fines.
Moreover, Article 176 doubles the term of imprisonment, from one year to two, where the defamation was committed through the media. Where the defamation is both through the media and committed against individuals performing "public, religious or political duties," the term of imprisonment is increased to three years.
“The move by East Timor to criminalise defamation is evidence of the disturbing trend moving across South East Asia,” said Warren.
“The use of criminal defamation to address possible defamatory reports by journalists is out of step with the democratic principles of freedom of the press and free speech, “ said Warren.
”Civil penalties, combined with improved journalistic training, the promotion of press councils combined with prominent and quick apologies, offer a far more effective remedy to the aggrieved plaintiff,” said Warren.
“The IFJ’s message is simple, its not appropriate to jail journalists for doing their job,” said Warren.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries