Candlelight’s No2 lands in NEC defamation suit

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Candlelight Party vice-president Son Chhay during Candlelight Party Congress at Khmuonh commune in Sen Sok district on 15-05-2022. Heng Chivoan

The National Election Committee (NEC) on June 17 filed a lawsuit against Candlelight Party vice-president Son Chhay for “public defamation” for his remarks in a recent interview on the “Idea Talk” podcast hosted by the US-based Khmer-language online media outlet Cambodia Daily.

The complaint was lodged by NEC deputy secretary-general Som Sorida and its senior member Dim Sovannarom at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The letter of complaint seen by The Post emphasised that Chhay had “misled the public” with his remarks.

“Such a claim seriously affects the NEC’s reputation, which has to fulfil its mission with independence and neutrality in order to ensure that the elections go freely, genuinely, justly and in accordance with the principle of multi-party democracy,” the letter states.

It went on to quote Chhay’s words from the June 7 interview: “These [election results] do not reflect the will of the people, who were intimidated. Their votes were bought or stolen. That’s why the seats remain [with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party].

“We don’t want to compare [the elections] to someone stealing cows, but as we’ve said before, they are already a cow thief if they steal three cows, so what difference does it make if we allow them to steal five cows,” Chhay said.

During the interview, Chhay alleged that the June 5 commune council elections “did not reflect the will of the people” and was marred by “threats, vote-buying and rigging”. He claimed that, on the day of the vote, some incumbent commune chiefs were “taking note” of voters and that armed forces were “moving around, causing fear”.

“It is not right, it is not just and the NEC is not independent, and the result does not rightly reflect the will of the people,” he said.

The NEC requested that the court penalise Chhay for “public defamation”, invoking Article 305 of the Criminal Code, and demanded that he issue an apology in a publicly released letter.

Chhay could not be reached for comment on June 19 as he was reportedly travelling abroad.

But Candlelight vice-president Thach Setha opined that the lawsuit was inappropriate because the NEC is supposed to ensure that the elections were free and fair.

“So, the NEC is like a referee for making [election] judgments. When election rivals have just raised problems regarding irregularities, the NEC instead files a complaint. Other institutions did not sue, but instead the NEC has sued them . . . Usually, when we are not satisfied with something, we have a right to raise the issue,” he said.

Setha continued that the NEC should have issued a statement denying the comments in order to clear its name or tried to defend its positions.

Sam Sokuntheamy, the executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said that typically when holding a nationwide election, some small mistakes or irregularities might occur which opposition parties will criticise the NEC over.

But he echoed Setha’s view, saying that as the election referee, the NEC should not have filed a defamation complaint with the court and it would have been better had the NEC just met with Chhay individually to seek an explanation.

“The NEC is the competent body in holding the elections. It is normal that in the course of things, they will have a certain amount of irregularities. The [losing parties] always raise these irregularities and criticise them over it. So, as a referee in this case, they should not have filed the complaint. The lawsuit seems to be the NEC saying ‘how dare anyone criticise us’,” Sokuntheamy said.

Sorida said the complaint was not done out of compliance with the NEC law, but was filed against the defamer according to the Criminal Code.

“[Chhay’s] comments are offensive and defamatory to a national body that is enshrined in the Constitution. This has nothing to do with the election law – which the NEC is bound to respect and enforce – this is just public defamation according to the Criminal Code, which stipulates the nature of the offence and its penalties,” he stated.

He said that if the NEC did not file a complaint, it would mean that the national election body was confirming what was being alleged by Chhay.