Media watchdogs have voiced concern after a Cambodia-based journalist and blogger was ordered to pay 100 million riel (US$25,000) to a French property developer after he was convicted of defamation charges by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Wednesday.

British national and former Phnom Penh Post journalist Rupert Winchester was sued by Etienne Chevenier in relation to allegations made on ‘The Mighty Penh’ blog in June 2013. Winchester later removed the post, and told local media on Wednesday that he would appeal the decision.

The decision has raised serious concerns surrounding freedom of expression in Cambodia, especially on online media. A draft cybercrime law, which was leaked earlier this year, could see journalists facing up to three years in prison and hefty fines for activities “deemed to be non-factual which slanders or undermined the integrity of any governmental agencies, ministries”.

Media watchdogs were quick to condemn Wednesday’s decision. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement Thursday saying that it “is concerned by the hefty financial damages imposed on a blogger in a defamation case in Cambodia. The ruling could have a detrimental effect on online commentary in the country.”

Sorn Ramana, a project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told the Phnom Penh Post: “Cyberspace in Cambodia is currently fairly free… but convictions over statements made online are something to be concerned about in terms of legal precedent.”

Earlier, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said a conviction would “set a bad precedent for blogs and personal commentary on social media in Cambodia.”

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