Published On: Thu, Jul 25th, 2019

Defamation remains part of St. Maarten’s culture

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Fish Alley Cartoon with texts
PHILIPSBURG – Slander, defamation, insults; these are the key ingredients of what St. Maarteners know as melee. Playing out mainly on Facebook and on gossip web sites, it is a popular pastime from the writers of this stuff and their readers alike. And so far, this circus has continued with impunity. In a way it has become part of the island’s culture.

The last time a blogger was in court for – get this – “threats, insults, stalking, defamation and slander” –  was somewhere in 2015 or 2016, when the prosecutor’s office finally put the infamous blogger Judith Roumou in front of a judge. But the case never reached its conclusion, and Roumou was never sentenced.

In the recent past, now former Public Health Minister Emil Lee and SZV-director Glen Carty have been in the crosshairs of so-called melee on a gossip website. Wild and unfounded accusations against Lee (involving his family’s construction company in the new hospital project) and against Carty (getting $28,000 a month for his function at SZV) fell on fertile grounds with the melee-lovers. Whether there will be legal consequences is at this moment unclear – but it remains a distinct possibility.

MP Luc Mercelina was a target in 2018 when accusations were published that he botched an operation at the St. Maarten Medical Center. The hospital management angrily dismissed the allegation.

The distributors of lies and false accusations are having a ball in St. Maarten – there seems to be no penalty for damaging someone’s reputation. But elsewhere in the world, citizens may want to think twice before doing such a thing.

Cambodia is an excellent example, though the term excellent is a bit over the top for the dictatorial regime of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In January 2018, the court in the country’s capital Phnom Penh sentenced former deputy prime minister Lu Lay Sreng to pay Hun Sen $125,000 for claiming that Sen had offered $20,000 to officials from another political party to take  seat in the national assembly. Sreng was also fined for comparing the king to a castrated rooster and for calling Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of said party, “a bad prince.”

Sreng did not wait for the verdict: he fled the country.

A couple moths later the court sentenced a woman, Sam Sokha, to 2 years of imprisonment for throwing a shoe at a billboard of the reigning CPP. Sokha fled to Thailand but to the dismay of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, she was extradited and subsequently jailed.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the dissolved opposition party Cambodian National Rescue Party was sentenced to pay Prime Minister Hun Sen $1 million for alleging that Sen had bribed a pro-government activist to attack the opposition. Hun Sen’s attorney filed a request with the court to seize Rainsy’s house in Phnom Penh.

The most astonishing story played out in June of this year when Yin Heng, a 23-year old law student traveled to his home from the airport in Phnom Penh. Three men attacked him on the road and beat him up. With a bump on his head and the royal palace in the background, Heng – aka Champei Khmao (Black Frangipani) – expressed his anger in a video that he posted the same evening on Facebook.

In it, Heng who is a Vietnamese-Cambodian, called Cambodians animals and bad people. “You will be burned and destroyed.”

When the video was brought to the attention of interior minister Sar Kheng, he was not amused and he ordered Heng’s arrest. The law student faced a maximum sentence of 3 years and a $1,000 fine, but the court let him off the hook with a 2 year prison sentence, with one year suspended, and a $750 fine.

In spite of all the legal action against defamation on all levels, the practice is not dead in Cambodia. A search on the web site of the English-language Khmer Times for the term defamation returned in a split second 421 hits.

Against this background, St. Maarten still has a long way to go in protecting its citizens against smear campaigns.

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