Courting the Law and Silencing Critics
Stiletto by Max Kolbe – July, 2009
The bullying of journalists around the region continues to be played out before the courts with politicians, military officers, the odd fixer and despot hiding behind the skirts of a magistrate to silence their critics.
In particular the illustrious legal systems of North Korea, Cambodia, Thailand and possibly Iran will no doubt ignore any bruised egos and be fair and even handed in dispensing justice against the unruly fourth estate.
It’s with the North Korean courts the families of Euna Lee and Laura Ling have placed their faith, along with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
Clinton has raised hopes that a diplomatic shift will work where pleading and commonsense has failed, and secure the release of the two young American journalists being held in Pyongyang.
Lee and Ling were sentenced to 12 years in a labour camp for entering North Korea illegally and for other unspecified charges.
The pair quite publicly expressed remorse for their actions as Clinton appealed for an amnesty, a formula which the smart money says could find acceptance within the North Korean judiciary.
Initially, the Obama administration had urged Pyongyang to release the two women for humanitarian reasons.
But the shift to calls for an amnesty was highlighted during a meeting with state department employees when Clinton’s tone was a far cry from bellicose rhetoric that too often accompanies dealings with North Korea.
“I think everyone is very sorry that it happened. What we hope for now is that these two young women would be granted amnesty through the North Korean system and be allowed home to their families as soon as possible,” she said.
The journalists work for Californian-based broadcaster Current TV and were arrested near the China-North Korean border where they were working on a story about North Korean refugees.
Since their expressions of remorse, both have received consular assistance through the Swedish ambassador who represents US interests there.
A liberal dose of international diplomacy would not go astray in Bangkok where the entire board of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand is facing court after a “lese majeste” complaint was filed by freelance translator Laksana Kornsil.
The local fixer claimed the DVD had insulted King Bhumibol Adulyadej and sought to undermine the monarchy.
The DVD was a compilation of speeches made at the club by prominent political figures, including a August 2007 address by former government minister Jakrapob Penkair, an ally of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
“We understand that the police have an obligation to conduct an inquiry. The FCCT will cooperate with such an inquiry,” FCCT President Marwaan Macan-Markar said.
Lese-majeste is punishable by up to 15 years in prison in Thailand where many people regard the 81-year-old monarch as semi-divine.
Editors and journalists working in Thailand have complained privately and bitterly that reckless use of the law was stifling the country’s free press at time when its honesty was needed most.
However, to say this publicly risks being charged with lese majeste.
In neighbouring Cambodia, two locally-based hands have been tied up in knots — legally and literally.
Kevin Doyle, editor of the Cambodian Daily is expecting to front court after his paper published comments from opposition politician Ho Vann who questioned the academic quality of Vietnamese university degrees that were conferred on 22 Cambodian military officers.
The story was written by Neou Vannarin and Doyle, an Irishman, immediately leapt to his reporter’s defence.
Writing in his own newspaper, Doyle said: “If there is a complaint of defamation to be answered concerning the story that was written Mr Neou then it should be I, as editor-in-chief, who is called to trial, as I am the individual most responsible for this article and not the reporter.”
One wonders how many editors elsewhere, with much larger resources at their disposal, would be bold enough to take on 20-odd Khmer officers in a Cambodian court.
Meanwhile George McLeod found himself strung-up along with scores of pro-democracy protestors in an Iranian jail. No court appearances required here.
The Cambodian-based Canadian had just finished up at the Phnom Penh Post and decided to use the Iranian elections as a launch pad for a freelance career.
But the authorities, perhaps confused by his slight Middle East appearance, assumed McLeod was a local student who didn’t agree with the result.
“I was seized by riot police and taken by motorbike to a location near the interior ministry where I was pulled and attacked by about five officers, including one in a military style of uniform who grabbed me by the neck,” McLeod told Max.
“I was then driven to the interior ministry building and led down a dark flight of stairs where I was interrogated. Several dozen males were being held in stress positions in the basement, and I saw one prisoner being brought in with what looked like a broken nose.”
McLeod was searched and questioned, told a mistake was made and free to go but he would be arrested four times during his 11-day stay.
“The authorities knew well that I was a reporter, and I was wearing my press card on the outside of my clothes. Nevertheless, I am certain that my treatment was mild to say the least compared to what an Iranian would have been through.”
Reporters Sans Frontieres says 41 journalists were imprisoned in Iran a month after the country’s contested election. It described Iran as the world’s biggest prison for journalists, and was becoming the world’s most dangerous place for them to operate.
However, others proved that journalists could be just as fallible as anyone else.
Peter Lloyd, an Australian television reporter, was freed from a Singapore jail after serving almost seven months of a 10-month sentence for drug offences.
Lloyd, former New Delhi-based correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was jailed last December after pleading guilty to three drug charges.
Time off for good behavior resulted in an early release.
Lloyd was sentenced to eight months for possessing 0.41 grams the stimulant methamphetamine and another eight months for consuming it. He received an additional two months for possessing drug paraphernalia stained with ketamine.
His defence argued the drugs helped alleviate the pain caused by post-traumatic stress that followed years of covering wars and disasters in Asia.
Trafficking charges, which carried a prison term of between five and 20 years as well as five to 15 strokes of the cane, were earlier dropped. One can only hope that journalists who find themselves incarcerated for simply doing their job are so lucky.