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Deterioration of freedom of speech in Cambodia

October 11, 2009

The Cambodian National Assembly passed an article of the new penal code last Tuesday with strict penalties for “defamation, insult and exaggeration” of claims against the government. Hy Sophea, a secretary of state who works for the Ministry of Justice explains that the new law is intended to “ensure social security, public order and the dignity of all members of society.” Especially in light of the recent arrests of prominent opposition party politicians who have been charged with defamation and are being  brought to trial, this codified attack on free speech is troubling. Defenders of human rights are understandably upset by this development, and 21 NGOs signed a 12-page letter to the National Assembly outlining their concerns on Wednesday.

Although I have not been able to find the full text of the new law in English yet, friends have translated more detailed reports from Khmer newspapers for me. Apparently the law punishes not only the original spreading of “defamatory” information, but also can be used to punish those who pass on that information, even if they cite their original source. The new law would also mean that if someone sued someone else for corruption, but the defendant was found not guilty, the plaintiff could be punished for defamation. The Phnom Penh Post article that I linked to above only cites fines up to $2,394 (which would be a crippling debt for most Khmer people) but there has been talk about penalties involving imprisonment as well.

Unfortunately, the people resisting this new law are especially at risk for being penalized by the rules they oppose. Mu Sochua, a Sam Rainsy Party Member of Parliament, explained that “powerless people will be vulnerable under the new penal code whenever they speak out concerning land disputes, legal issues or corruption.” Even as a powerful politician, Sochua’s safety in Cambodia is questionable. In August, Sochua was found guilty of defamation against Hun Sen, the prime minister and leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, as well as “speaking out,” “speaking on behalf of women,” “spreading disinformation.” (Yes, you read that right. She was found guilty of “speaking on behalf of women.”) Sochua is in the process of appealing that ruling, which was denounced by human rights organizations as politically motivated and unfounded.

In the meantime, she traveled to the United States, where she addressed many audiences about the political instability in Cambodia, as well as met privately with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Addressing the World Affairs Council, she requested the following: “Please monitor [my] case, because it’s very very likely that I will go to jail…” With the ratification of the new penal code, it seems all too likely that she will be in good company if she is imprisoned.

I’ll update here as more information becomes available about the new penal code and Sochua’s case.

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