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Rights groups decry 'gag rule' for lawyers

A new Bar Association rule regulating how lawyers interact with the media is grossly unconstitutional and little more than a thinly veiled attempt to coerce public opinion, rights monitors said yesterday.

On Friday, the Bar Association announced new strictures aimed at “improving professionalism”, a bar official said yesterday. Lawyers seeking to make in-depth comments on television or radio must obtain permission, said bar spokesman Yim Sary, while media outlets seeking guest speakers to discuss the law must go through the Bar Association, according to a statement sent by the Ministry of Information on Friday.

“If your comments are light or small, you don’t have to obtain permission. For example: a court sentences a man to three years in jail, so the journalist would ask, ‘What does the lawyer think?’ The lawyer replies, ‘It’s unjust and I will appeal.’ We’re fine with this statement,” explained Sary.

“But if you say, ‘Oh, this verdict is unjust to my client. My client did not commit the crime,’ and say a lot more than what the verdict is, it means you violate the verdict, which could see a criminal punishment.”

Bar Association president Bun Hun, who announced the measures at a Friday meeting, declined to comment yesterday, saying he would only speak to the media during press conferences.

Rights monitors and legal experts called the rule just the latest in a string of tightening restraints.

“It’s unconstitutional, but also it just violates a whole bunch of rights. The whole controlling nature of the bar association is now reaching a new low,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.

The Bar Association has come under fire in the past for pressuring lawyers. Most famously, it was accused by rights groups of using threats of disbarment to interfere in the 2009 defamation suit filed by Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua against Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Forced to face a bar inspection panel multiple times before being countersued by the premier himself, Sochua’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, eventually quit the highly sensitive case. Both the suit and inspection were dropped only after Sam Onn sent a letter of apology to Hun Sen, and no other lawyer would subsequently touch the case.

The stricture would be far more likely to affect the outspoken, highly critical lawyers who go after the government on political and human rights cases, noted monitors. In the past, the association has sought to keep strict control. One 2007 rule, for instance, required that NGOs sign a memorandum of understanding with the bar before employing lawyers.

While the bar’s Sary defended the rule, saying it was necessary to protect the level of “professionalism”, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies Moeun Chhean Nariddh said the justification was insufficient.

“I think it’s not enough to justify any banning of a lawyer not to talk to the media or the public. I think this is a good example that we urgently need the Freedom of Information Law to make sure that an individual – whether a lawyer, or member of the government – is allowed to talk or express their opinion,” he said.

“Any lawyer should have the freedom to express their opinion based on articles 31 and 41 of the Cambodian constitution.”

Such a rule also flies in the face of international conventions to which Cambodia is a signatory, pointed out Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

“The Cambodian Bar Association’s new gag rule... goes completely against rights conventions ratified by Cambodia and is yet another blow to the reputation and the integrity of the judicial system,” he said.   

Both the bar and Ministry of Information, however, downplayed such criticism, calling it a “misunderstanding” of the edict.

“The Bar Association respects freedom of speech, but it’s limited within your responsibility. Our ban is not intended to shut down freedom of speech of the lawyers,” said Sary.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, meanwhile, denied it outright, saying in a message: “[T]he Bar Association didn’t prohibit that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com
Chhay Channyda at channyda.chhay@phnompenhpost.com

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