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21 NGOs express concern on code

TWENTY-one civil society organisations focused on legal aid and human rights have issued recommendations to the National Assembly, urging the body’s members to ease penalties for defamation, among other measures, as they continue debate over the Kingdom’s new penal code.

In a 12-page letter dated Wednesday, the organisations expressed worry that the defamation offense, ratified this week as article 305 of the new penal code, will serve as a constraint on freedom of expression.

“Politicians could possibly use Article 305 to block demonstrations and other gatherings for people to express themselves,” the letter read.

The letter raised similar concerns regarding the disinformation penalty listed as Article 448 in the new code, asking that lawmakers amend the article so that the offence is constrained to cases related to Cambodian national security, as well as about the penalty for insult, listed as Article 502.

Cheam Yeap, a senior lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the Assembly welcomed the civil society recommendations, but said that because many articles of the new code have already been approved, parliamentarians will have to wait until after the law has been
implemented to take them into account.

“We appreciate that these groups want the new law to be as good as it can be, but we will have to keep their document in the Assembly to check and consider after the new code has been officially approved,” he said. “If there is a problem, we will amend it.”

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a local rights group that signed the letter, urged parliamentarians to consider the document now, while debate is still occurring.

“We are just giving ideas – we are concerned about the vagueness of many aspects of the code, so we hope that the Assembly will take our letter into account as they continue debate,” he said.

Lawmaker and Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said Thursday that upon receiving the letter, he had taken some of its recommendations and presented them in debate on the National Assembly floor, but without success.

“I took some of the recommendations of these organisations and requested that the Assembly hold a plenary session to discuss them, but the CPP rejected this proposal,” he said.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly voted 82-21 in favor of penalties on defamation, disinformation and insult. This vote came despite complaints from members of the political opposition and civil society, who say that these articles of the new penal code will further accelerate the government’s ongoing crackdown on political speech.

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