The recent high-profile arrests, and subsequent release, of five human rights
activists has brought into question the enforcement of Cambodia's existing
criminal defamation law, with some people and organizations clamoring for its
Recently detained human rights activist Kem Sokha speaks to reporters following his release on bail from Prey Sar prison on January 17.
Although hailed by international rights groups -
including a supportive statement from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi
Annan - the release on bail of Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Teang of the Cambodian
Center for Human Rights (CCHR); Yeng Virak of the Community Legal Education
Center; Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association President Rong Chhun; and
Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando, has done nothing to alter a legal
system that some observers say is being used to muzzle public criticism of the
"We are trying to change the law because it is being used to
silence critics; it is a very bad law that severely limits freedom of
expression," said Ou Virak, general-secretary of the Alliance for Freedom of
Expression in Cambodia. "There is momentum in civil society and the main players
agree that the law needs to be changed. The donor community will start to
understand. In fact, we're hoping that decriminalizing defamation will be the
main topic in the [Consultative Group] meeting in March."
activists were charged with criminal defamation by the Municial Court over
alleged criticism of the government's border treaty with Vietnam.
experts in Phnom Penh told the Post that members of the donor community are
already debating the implications of Cambodia's Press Law, which some say should
have replaced Untac's legal code in 1995.
CCHR President Kem Sokha said
on January 26 that he had met with the ambassadors of France, Japan, Canada, the
United States and the European Union to discuss changes to the law and that he
will present a seminar on the subject in coming weeks.
officials said they were aware of Sokha's meetings with diplomats but declined
to comment on existing defamation laws.
According to Yash Ghai, the
United Nations Special Representative to Cambodia on Human Rights, "the
legislation which has been used in recent months to charge or convict a number
of persons is inconsistent with the constitution. Most countries which have
criminal defamation laws have either repealed them, or tend not to use them, and
I believe that Cambodia should follow their example."
Ghai would like to
see a complete redrafting of the laws regarding defamation. "The combination of
a rather loosely drafted law and the relative lack of independence and
competence of the judiciary means that such laws can be used to harass political
opponents and suppress freedom of expression," he said.
A former human
rights lawyer, Ghai intends to use his term to highlight the issue of freedom of
expression in Cambodia.
"It is a big issue, because it affects the
political process, it affects the ability of the opposition to operate, it
prevents debates on matters of social and economic policy which should really be
debated by the people," he said. "And it puts in jeopardy a number of people,
including journalists, politicians, and activists."
In 2002 a UN report
declared, "Criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of
expression; all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced with
appropriate civil laws."
On December 22, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court
sentenced opposition leader Sam Rainsy in absentia to 18 months in jail for
defaming Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Rainsy, who remains in self-imposed exile in France, has expressed little
concern over his conviction and told the Post recently that "the verdict will
become irrelevent in the near future."
On January 25, the Asian Human
Rights Watch Commission (AHRC) issued a statement calling for the removal of the
criminal defamation law.
"The AHRC appeals to Prime Minister Hun Sen to
withdraw criminal defamation charges against other human rights activists, trade
union leaders and politicians as well, most of whom have fled the Cambodia
during and prior to the recent crackdown on government critics," the statement
read. "Such a measure will do much to counter the severe fear psychosis
paralysing the country.
"More importantly, however, the Cambodian
government must decriminalize defamation itself, so as to bring Cambodian law in
conformity with international legal doctrines, for which criminal defamation is
now obsolete. Such 'laws' have no place in modern societies and should be
relegated to the archives of past repression and bad
According to legal experts, most countries have some form of
defamation law designed to protect people's reputations by prohibiting
statements that would make a reasonable person think less of their
From a human rights perspective, the problems occur when
governments and powerful people misuse defamation laws to silence their critics.
When this happens, it has serious implications for freedom of expression,
creating a culture where people are afraid to speak or publish criticism of
those in power.
In most countries, criminal defamation law is still
available, but in democratic countries such as Australia and France it is rarely
used, reserved for serious cases, or for chronic offenders who have no money to
pay fines. In 2001, after sustained pressure from the press and the public,
Ghana abolished criminal defamation law. Sri Lanka did the same in 2002.