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Cambodia’s ‘robust’ laws on freedom of expression are routinely misapplied, says report

Ethnic Jarai Christians gather for a monthly meeting at a residence in Ratanakkiri province last year before the meeting was shut down by authorities. Photo supplied
Ethnic Jarai Christians gather for a monthly meeting at a residence in Ratanakkiri province last year before the meeting was shut down by authorities. Photo supplied

Cambodia’s ‘robust’ laws on freedom of expression are routinely misapplied, says report

In spite of a generally good legal framework, Cambodians face systematic restrictions on their fundamental freedoms, according to a new joint report released by rights organisations yesterday.

The first annual report of the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Adhoc and the Solidarity Center examined freedom of association, assembly and expression across Cambodia, and found hundreds of restrictions or violations of fundamental freedoms over the past year.

The authors logged 391 individual cases of restrictions or violations of fundamental rights, as well as 60 reports of association meetings, trainings or celebrations being interrupted by the police “without a legal basis”.

Additionally, they found 590 incidents, reported in the media, in which the Cambodian government’s “actions or words” had an impact on fundamental freedom. Sixty-one percent of those were cases in which the government “improperly implemented” the law.

They also find that some elements of the legal framework “unjustifiably restrict[ed] the freedom of expression” – for instance the NGO Law clause requiring all organisations to “maintain their neutrality”.

Surveys also showed that only 11.5 percent of respondents felt they were “very free” to exercise their fundamental freedoms or participate in political life.

CCHR Executive Director Chak Sopheap said the most concerning aspect was the “systematic monitoring” of civil society. “Police routinely demand to observe such activities, and often take photographs and demand lists of participants,” she said in an email.

The report gives an example of a gathering of Christians in June 2016, “who were meeting to discuss their faith and eat” but were interrupted by police, saying they should have sought permission.

But government spokesman Phay Siphan said such interference was legal. “They have to cooperate with local authorities . . . They have to get a permit,” he said. “What [NGOs] wish to see is no law; they wish to do whatever they want, but we won’t let them do it.”

Yet Sopheap disagreed, saying that, “at least on paper”, Cambodia had a “robust legal framework”, but “misapplication of laws ... is endemic”.

However, Siphan insisted any mistreatment was simply the result of poor legal representation, not a symptom of systematic shortcomings in the legal system – which has been routinely criticised for decades. “They should find a good lawyer to protect their rights, but instead of doing that they discredit the courts. And discrediting the court is a criminal act.”

But Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson characterised the situation as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “intensifying crackdown on civil society in pursuit of absolute power”, and called on donors, the UN and foreign governments to “resist this onslaught”.

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