THE National Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to pass articles of the new penal code related to defamation, insult and exaggeration of information, defying the concerns of opposition lawmakers who say that the new laws will further curtail freedom of expression in the Kingdom.
The speech restrictions passed in the Assembly by a vote of 82-21. Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Mu Sochua said, however, that she feared the new articles would allow those in the upper echelons of Cambodian society to further entrench their interests.
“Powerless people will be vulnerable under the new penal code whenever they speak out concerning land disputes, legal issues or corruption,” she said.
Mu Sochua added that she believes members of the Cambodian People’s Party passed the law in order to protect themselves from allegations of corruption and restrict opposition activities.
Hy Sophea, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice who served as the government’s representative to explain the new penal code to members of the Assembly, said that citizens must be careful to distinguish between free speech and insult or defamation.
“We aimed to place limitations on the rights of citizens in the new penal code because we want them to respect one another and ensure social security, public order and the dignity of all members of society,” he said.
Hy Sophea added that the penalties for defamation under the new penal code, which can carry fines of between 100,000 and 10 million riels (US$24 and $2,394), are not as serious as those in Western countries.
“The penalties [for defamation] have been reduced compared to the 1992 UNTAC code, so abolishing these penalties altogether, as some members of the National Assembly have suggested, does not seem reasonable,” he said.
Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring for the rights group Adhoc, said the new penal code places clear and troubling limits on freedom of expression.
“Those of us who are members of the civil society community are very concerned about how limitations on freedom of expression will affect our advocacy work when we criticise government institutions and government officers,” he said.
The UN stance
In testimony last week in front of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, called on Cambodia to decriminalise defamation in order to bring free speech laws into line with international standards, according to a UN news report.
Mu Sochua said that SRP lawmakers had pushed for this sort of easing of defamation penalties in order to promote government transparency and encourage ordinary citizens to freely express their concerns.
These issues, Mu Sochua argued, have been problems for Cambodian society in past few years. “Such was the case for me, as an opposition party lawmaker, when I sued Prime Minister Hun Sen for defamation, and he countersued me, and the judge interpreted the case to say that I had defamed [Hun Sen],” she said.
Siek Bun Hok, a CPP lawmaker, said that members of the SRP should stop insulting and defaming others if they want to avoid lawsuits.