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Jail time for political invective proposed

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Prime Minister Hun Sen gives speech earlier. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

A law floated by the premier yesterday could see jail time for elected officials who hurl invective against one another in the political arena, a proposal critics say is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to stifle dissent and debate.

The suggestion, which came in a speech Hun Sen gave at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh, was ostensibly in reaction to a recent Post column calling for more civility on the campaign trail. But the Prime Minister took the idea one step further, saying only an ironclad law could prevent politicians bickering and mud-slinging.

“I fully support having a code of ethics for political party leaders to use, but [a code of ethics] is not strong enough to bind the insulter,” he said.

“Therefore, there must be a proposed law on how long the insulter’s jail term will be if insults such as ‘traitor’ are used.

“Whoever [among the] politicians dare, we will gather for a meeting to draft a law and limit the types of Khmer derogatory terms that must not be used.”

Hun Sen said the law could be drafted and passed while the National Assembly was in its next three-month session, beginning in April.

While he didn’t call go into detail about which insults would result in jail terms under the suggested law, Hun Sen listed a series of phrases opposition leaders have used against him as examples of stinging words. As in the past, he mentioned attempts to ridicule his loss of an eye in the 1970s.

Referring to opposition Sam Rainsy Party members, he pointed out that “they have attacked me as ‘blind-eye guy’, ‘traitor’, ‘having a Khmer body with a Vietnamese head’,” adding that if he had ever thrown a word or two back, it  was only in response.

But Son Chhay, a long-time sitting Sam Rainsy Party legislator who is a chief strategist for the newly formed Cambodian National Rescue Party, said there was no doubt Hun Sen’s latest suggestion would be a tool wielded by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to curtail criticism. If Hun Sen were really serious about a civil dialogue amongst elected officials, Chhay argued, the premier should be setting a better example.

“We’ve heard from time to time language the prime minister has been using, like calling his opponents criminals, or dog, or cat, no brain – all kinds of words,” Chhay said.

“But we don’t mind, as long as we can respond to that kind of language without facing serious consequences… Because you have a problem with freedom of expression in this country, when you set up another law to take people to court, you set up another law to summon restrictions of freedom of expression.”

Legal and political analysts said yesterday that passing a law to curb vitriolic banter amongst politicians was going too far, and that there were already laws policing defamation that would cover the bases of any personal insults.

“We have so many laws already; this is amid a criminalisation trend, so it’s another law,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center. “Millions of voters are the judge, not the courtroom. The people, they know good and bad behaviour of political leaders.”

Chea Vannath, a political analyst, said that while she agreed with the reasoning behind the proposed law, its effects would be harmful.

“I wouldn’t support having a law, because the powerless would be vulnerable, particularly the opposition,” Vannath said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he could not comment on the likelihood of such a law coming to fruition in the next session, because he had not heard the exact phrasing of Hun Sen’s speech.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Vong Sokheng at sokheng.vong@phnompenhpost.com

Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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