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Let lawyers speak freely

16 lawyers
Choose your words carefully: a group of newly sworn-in Cambodian lawyers.

In January, Bar Association of Cambodia president Bun Hon released a letter requesting that the Information Minister instruct radio and television stat-ions to contact the association before asking lawyers to comment on newsworthy legal issues.  

A second letter informed members of the Bar Association about the issue of participation in media interviews.

The following month, Bun Hon told a press conference these letters were designed to remind media outlets and members of the legal profession of their responsibility to ensure the dissemination of acc-urate information about the law.

Although he pointed out that in the past, some lawyers had incorr-ectly interpreted the law,  he did not ban lawyers from expressing their opinion of, and interpretation of, laws in the media.

But this seems to contradict the two letters Bun Hon sent out earlier.

The first letter appears to prevent lawyers speaking to the media without the prior approval of the Bar Association.

The second letter stresses that any members of the legal fraternity who intend to promote the profess-ion through research, dissemination of information, or education must submit an application to the
Bar Association.   

But the key point in the second letter is that it seems to give all lawyers a warning, saying: “The Bar will take measures in accordance with the law and procedures against any colleagues whose actions affect the value, and the profession, of lawyers.”

In practice, this probably means that if a lawyer hasn’t applied in advance, the Bar Association will take note and wait for a chance to hit back at the lawyer.

A case in point: on Radio Free Asia, Bun Hon ridiculed combative lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, president of the Cambodian Defenders Project, saying he didn’t know the law.

Sok Sam Oeun had criticised Article 15 of the lawyers’ code of ethics, not realising the article had been amended — and Bun Hon took full advantage of this.

Shortly afterwards, the amended article suddenly appeared on the Bar Association’s website. (Strangely, such amendments aren’t circulated to association members by email.)

So do these two letters mean all members of the Bar, including Prime Minister Hun Sen (ID #350) and SRP president Sam Rainsy (ID #108) must ask for permission before they speak to the media?

And when Sam Rainsy said Cambodia’s courts were not independent, did Bun Hon send him a warning letter?

What if Hun Sen says something that contravenes the code of ethics? Will he receive a warning?

Before he became Bar Association president, Bun Hon frequently spoke on national television concerning interpretation of the law. Did he ask permission from the former presidents each time?

If he didn’t ask permission, he violated Article 15, paragraph 2 of the previous code of ethics, which stipulates that “the Bar president must receive advance notice and advance consultation in the issue . . .”   

Did the previous Bar presidents issue him with warning letters?

Previous presidents never invoked Article 15, and it was amended in September last year.

So why is Bun Hon trying to drag us back to a track that has already been removed?

What’s the purpose of his two letters? Are they driven by politics, or the conflict of interest?  

If a lawyer makes a mistake, the Bar Association president issues a warning letter and posts it on the association’s website.

But if the president makes a mistake, who will take disciplinary action against him?

In the case of a warning letter issued to lawyer Kouy Thunna, signed by the president on  January 31 this year, and in another decision signed by the president on disciplinary action against Thunna dated January 30, the decision states: “This warning letter must be publicised and posted on the website of the Bar Association for 30 days from the date the letter was issued.”   

That letter is still posted on the association’s website, but the deadline passed more than a month ago — so Thunna’s image continues to be damaged. Who will take responsibility for that?

This public warning looks like a case of cutting the throat of a chicken to warn a hundred monkeys, as the saying goes.   

As a consequence, the restrictions placed on legal experts have an impact on many people who still don’t understand on the law, such as the regulations on road traffic, human trafficking and corruption, and act as an obstacle to the resol-ution of social issues.        

So the Bar Association must give legal experts some freedom by rescinding those two letters.

And if any lawyer lacks the know-ledge to provide a clear interpretat-ion of the legislation, they should be trained further or advised to correct their interpretation.

Today, this is happening to lawyers. Maybe tomorrow, this insidious virus will infect journalists, who will have to seek approval from the Club of Cambodian Journalists before writing stories.

Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Post's Khmer edition.      



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