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Free speech not for the irresponsible

Free speech not for the irresponsible

The World Bank Country Director recently warned that the incarceration of political

figures could affect Cambodia's ability to attract investors. This comment followed

other similar comments from other critics of the government's actions, none of whom

are in the private sector. Although one can appreciate their concern to help Cambodia

on the road to democracy, their reliance on economic development for their arguments

misses the mark.

Although the business community wants to see human rights flourish, the abuse of

issues of sovereignty, ethnicity, and territoriality in a nascent democracy like

Cambodia are of far greater concern.

The protection of free speech when that speech is irresponsibly exercised has the

potential to unleash passions and prejudices held by many people. Twice in recent

years, in 1998 and 2003, demagogues have incited violence and death through the abuse

of free speech. This possibility worries potential investors far more than the employment

of laws which are an unfortunate residue of the UNTAC era.

From the viewpoint of those who have grown up in politically stable democracies,

the recent legal action appears to be a closing of the political space. However,

as I understand it, the legal actions taken against various figures in recent months

have to do with an attempt to moderate discussion of the border treaty with Vietnam,

a very sensitive issue in Cambodia. The border issue appears to have been pin-pointed

as a potentially incendiary issue, and critics were warned that the libel law would

be employed to control the situation.

If anyone doubts the sensitivity of the border controversy, please consider former

King Sihanouk's reaction to the references to the Lon Nol regime's use of this issue:

a government that tried and condemned him to death in absentia for allegedly ceding

territory to Vietnam.

For the business community, replacement of the UNTAC Criminal Law has long been a

priority. I have spoken at many fora over the years regarding the abuse of the notorious

"breach of trust" provision. UNTAC, in its infinite wisdom, drafted a libel

law with criminal penalties. This law can and should be changed, and the donor community

should be encouraged to continue to reform the criminal and civil laws.

But it places donors in an awkward position to encourage the government to ignore

laws on a case-by-case basis. Government officials respond by stating that this violates

the principle of rule of law.

Rather than pass special laws for potentially dangerous situations like the recent

border treaty, the government relied on a law imposed on them by UNTAC. The law is

antiquated and needs to be replaced. But donors should be encouraging moderation

on those who raise potentially inflammatory issues while, at the same time, pushing

for critically needed legal and judicial reform.

The government clearly links political stability with economic development. For example,

the Prime Minister devoted considerable time last October at the Government-Private

Sector Forum to discuss the Vietnam border issue. He did so again this week at the

Microfinance Summit.

The business community is not indifferent to the democratic progress being achieved

in Cambodia. For example, we have applauded the improvement in the three national

elections held since 1993, with steadily declining violence and greater accountability

associated with each successive election.

But democracy, and economic development, cannot occur if there is chaos and instability.

The government has a responsibility to maintain order, for the benefit of all citizens,

and in the early stages of democracy that may not be compatible with giving free

rein to those who might abuse free speech.

Bretton G Sciaroni - Phnom Penh

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