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Ministers muddy press law waters

Ministers muddy press law waters

M inister of Information Ieng Mouly and Secretary of State for Information Khieu

Kanharith have given conflicting messages about the contents of the new press

law, now before the Council of Ministers for approval.

Speaking to

participants of the UN Centre for Human Rights sponsored seminar on the Press

Law and Freedom, Mouly described the law as "the most liberal press law in the

world."

In contrast Kanharith apparently said that the Minister of

Information and the Minister of Interior would have sweeping powers to close

down newspapers pending a court injunction.

The Ministry of Information

has yet to make public the text of the proposals.

Seminar participants

were unsure if he was referring to the old SOC law or the new press law which

will replace it. Kanharith failed to clarify the matter during a question and

answer session after the speeches.

As the Post went to press, Kanharith

was in Battambang and could not be reached for comment.

His ambiguous

statement set alarm bells ringing among human rights organizations and one

senior NGO official drafted a commique they and the Cambodian Journalists'

Association were expected to sign.

It said: "To close press organs (even

if only for a limited period) or to engage in prepublication censorship would

seriously violate the concept of press freedoms and the

Constitution.

"Such provisions would represent a major step backwards

towards dictatorship and against freedom and democracy. We strongly urge the

Council of Ministers to reject any such provisions - or any other interferences

with the freedom of the press - even if there are attempts to include them in

the press law."

In the question and answer period, Mouly declined to be

specific about the punishments the media might face if they violated the new

press law, but said that civil rather than criminal charges would be

brought.

He also said the government would not retain the right to bar

distribution of material with which the government disagreed. "We will try to

settle all disagreements with the press through the courts," Mouly

said.

However a source, who is close to on-going disputes about the

contents of the law within the Council of Ministers, said that one option under

consideration is to allow free publication, but to retain the right to halt

distribution.

Prior to the press seminar, HM King Sihanouk last week

advised the government against restrictions on journalists.

In a message

from Beijing, where he has undergone cancer treatment, the King said: "I don't

think we need to draft regulations or laws for Khmer and foreign

journalists."

The King said that he was always the loser in his many

struggles with the press, "though sometimes my cause was just."

Mouly

reminded the seminar audience that the Constitution specifies that the King will

reign but not rule, thus that his advice is not binding on the

government.

The Minister of Information said "there is a need to

establish ground rules in order to avoid any abuse and to consolidate

freedom."

Mouly said the press law had relatively few chapters and they

were divided between press freedoms and press responsibilities.

Four

short articles deal with press freedoms and one long chapter with nine long

articles, altogether 11 pages long, deal with press responsibilities, he told

the seminar.

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