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Clamor for reform of defamation law

Clamor for reform of defamation law


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

complete abolition.

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."

The five

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.