Information Minister Ieng Mouly defends the draft Press Law to Michael Hayes, and says even journalists can be corrupt
Phnom Penh Post: I've seen the draft of the new press law and the penalities are larger and jail sentances are longer that the previous SOC law. Why has the government decided to make the penalties more severe? What is the thinking behind this?
Mouly: First I would say this law is to respond to the reality of Cambodia, reality based on the fact that first we are rehabilitating the country based on the fact that we continue to need well-trained journalists... local journalists to build up a society which is based on the rule of law, on democracy, on the pluralistic system. During this phase of rehabilitation we have to adopt a set of laws which will provide the framework for the people of Cambodia to exercise their freedom, as well as to fulfill their duties as citizens. So I talk about the reality that we are working out different forms, a different way, a different kind of law. That means a variety of laws. And the most important one will be the penal code which will include any sanctions, any rules to govern the acts of the citizens today. The second reality is working out different reforms in the judiciary, in civil administration and also in the army. All this work will constitute the institutions that will support the democratic process in Cambodia. So when we establish a draft law, in the beginning - you may remember the first draft that we have submitted to the National Assembly - at that time we thought that the law would be new, complete for the press and we didn't need to refer to other laws. So, we put in just penalties. And we were criticised by the U.N.
Human Rights Center, the local press association and the international press. So the government took the initiative to withdraw the draft and work out another. Then the situation of Cambodia became very dangerous for the journalists. You know about it. I recall the accident that happened to Thou Chhom Mongkol, the Antarakum editor and the killing of the editor of Samleng Yuvachun Khmer, Nuon Chan. So, we think that it's better to have a civil law that can avoid these things again, because the law will not apply to good journalists, the journalists who are responsible, the journalists who know the ethics of the profession. The law will deal with the bad people, the people who choose very bad language to create disorder in society. This is the main reason why we have to change a little bit and put a more severe law in the final draft.
But finally, there is also discussion among the government that if we pass a new law with civil provisions for journalists we may again be criticised. So we referred to the UNTAC penal code. That is still in effect so even if we have a liberal law on the press, the UNTAC penal code continues while we are waiting for a new penal code to be adopted by the National Assembly.
An example -criminal defamation. It is in the UNTAC law, not in the press law. But we want to avoid any confusion for the judges when they have to pronounce on a case about whether the journalist can be (tried) under the penal code or not. So that's why we say in the press there are also a defamation act. To avoid any confusion we just took the defamation included in UNTAC's penal code to be part of the press law.
Because in this country the people believe that you can not put the journalists in jail. This is the thinking of our journalists. The problem is that the journalists are also citizens and the citizens are also under the law of the country. So, we can not put journalists in jail because of writing because of the freedom of expression, but we put any citizen, including journalists, in jail if they steal things from anyone, if they blackmail. So this applies for everyone, not only just journalists. And we want our own journalists to understand this. They can write, they can criticise the government but they can not insult people. They can not blackmail people. So, this is the reason why we just include - we don't invent the civil sanctions against to be part of the press law. We just incorporate one part of the UNTAC penal code in the press law.
But this only a draft law. So, a draft law can be what? A draft law can be discussed, can be debated, can be amended or can be kept in its actual form. I believe that we start to have an open disucssion on every subject in Cambodia, including the subject of the press law. And we start to notice that there are many reactions from this quarter. I believe also that the government members as well as National Assembly members are the representatives of the people. I understand that they will take into consideration all that they accept. So this is the reason why the actual form of the draft law looks more severe than the last one.
Post: There have been recent cases of papers insulting public officials. I believe Hun Sen was referred to as a rat and the PM Ranariddh was told to stop barking like a dog. Are there some other examples?
Mouly: You know, when you use the genitals, if you write a word to represent a genital. This is very insulting, and this is very alien to Cambodian culture. Because we are quite different from you in western countries. Our society has been classified in a different category because our heritage comes from an ancient civilization from India. And you know that India still has castes, but we don't have castes but there is still a heirarchy in the society. But when you use a genital to summarize one person - genital for men - it is very insulting.
Post: Have newspapers used that?
Mouly: Used that!
Mouly: Not often, but it happened that they used that. And they compared, for instance, that one Minister was less than human excrement. And how do you respect the diginity of a government position if it was less than human excrement.
Post: Which paper was this?
Mouly: I don't want to mention the name but it exists, and I hope that they understand that they have to correct themselves. For the sake of the freedom of press in Cambodia. Because after one year of experience in this country what I regret is that there are not so many friends of a liberal law. So this is what I am afraid of. And because of what? Not because of the politicians, but because of the press members, the local press members. So this is what is very regretful for me and for Cambodia.
But we need to build up our society. We need to put in place the elements of our society. We have inherited a situation that has been 23 years in war and destruction. And sometimes morals are very bad. So we have to promote our values. We have to promote the values of the society of the Cambodian national culture, that we accept the Constitutional Monarchy, we accept to re-instill Buddhism, etc. Because what? Because we want to build up Cambodia in a Cambodian way. We can not immediately imitate the West, because in the U.S., France, Australia you have at least 100 years of expereince of democracy. You have very qualified people, you have knowledge. But we have just emerged from destruction. We need to put everything in place in the social heirarchy.
Post: One of the articles said that it would be against the law to humiliate a national organ. What does 'humiliate' mean? Would that be up to the courts to determine?
Mouly: It depends first on the interested institution. It depends on the public prosecutor and it depends as well on - sometimes in this country it depends also on the information minister if he considers that its humilitating a public institution. In that case he can refer to the public prosecutor who charges the editor; or the interested institution can become a civil party and complain to the court.
The example of the public or government institution is for example: you say that "the Royal Army is corrupt." Possible. You can be charged. But if you say some unit or some element of the Royal Armed Forces are corrupt, so you are not humilitating the army because the army is to defend the people, it is to protect the people. So the army is not corrupt but the people who are inside the army can be corrupt.
So, like if you said for example the government is a traitor from the people but you can say some indivuduals in the government are like that. So, this is the meaning of the article.
Post: Justice Kirby is here now. He said he had sent a letter expressing his concerns. He said Article 14 might contradict Article 41 of the Constitution and some internatonal human rights covenants. Is this something that will be debated during the National Assembly meeting. Is this the place where the debate will take place?
Mouly: I think this could be the place where it can be debated, discussed, amended but I believe that in the context the national institutions must be respected like I said to you, it is quite different from the fact that you can blame the responsible (party) of the institution but you can not humilitate the institution because the institution is intent to provide (for) the well-being of the people, to defend the interests of the nation. That is why we have to respect the institutions. So, but it can be discussed also.
Post: I've seen copies of letters from a number of various organizations around the world. Article 19, the Khmer Journalists Association has submitted a letter. Is this causing some debate internally among the various ministers over the draft law?
Mouly: We are taking into consideration any reaction but we believe that Cambodia is a soverign country. We know how to protect the interests of our people and we know also how to promote a democratic process in Cambodia (more) than other people. So it will be up to the people in the National Assembly to discuss the matter sovereignly but as well we will cover the situation but the work is ordinarily for a country, for a government who is supposed to be in charge of the state affairs.
Post: What is the timetable for the process to debate the law.
Mouly: Well normally after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, we have to correct the draft, voting, etc. and send it to the bureau of the National Assembly. Normally the National Assembly, the press and information committee has to debate, then afterwards it will go to the Standing Committee of the Assembly and after the discussion the draft will be sent to the full session of the National Assembly. I have no idea because there are so many draft laws which are waiting now for discussion but the draft press law will be one of the priorities that we have to discuss. So, maybe in December, late December or early next year we will know.
That is my personal view. Maybe they can accelerate (it) sooner.
Post: In the past year with all these instances of people being insulted, why weren't law suits inititated?
Mouly: First, its a matter of culture. The people of Cambodia including the officials or civil servants, they aren't used to write, they don't like to write so there are very few people who chose to write a letter. So for the newspaperman, for the journalist of course, their job is to write so they can write everything but for the people who are the victims of the articles, to write is very hard for them. So they say because the journalist start the story so they have to go through the court beccause I'm not guilty, for example. So this is a matter of culture.
In the West if the journalist writes something wrong the first thing to do is to write to the newspaper, but not in Cambodia. So that is why sometimes they use guns. This is really dangerous and we want to avoid that. We want to avoid the killing of the journalists.
First of all, recently one article was written about Samdech Krom Preah, the first Prime Minister as Samdech Krom Preay for example.
Post: What does that mean?
Mouly: The ghost who commits crimes and then goes to hell. But for Cambodia it is very insulting also. So if someone killed the editor (who wrote that), automatically public opinion will say that Samdech Krom Preah killed him. You can say that because he wrote an article about him. But he may write an article against other people also and those people might kill the editor also. So its better to have, from my view, a strong law to avoid that - for a while.
From my view we need this until we have a complete set of penal codes as I said at the beginning. In that case we may see clearly what is the penalty for the newsman, the penalty for other poeple. But once again our local journalists must know that, being journalists, if they steal something, or they kill someone they can be in jail also.
Post: Was there unanimous support for a strong law during the Council of Ministers' debate?
Mouly: As I said that what is regretable from the point of view of journalists is that after one year there are not so many supporters of a liberal law. So I will see in the National Assembly how many people who want to make amendments of the draft law. The government now is open to any discussion but we know how to defend the interests of Cambodia and the government wants in the future a free but responsible press. That is why we are in association with UNESCO. We have set up the Institute of Communication for Cambodia to open in February. Denmark contributed and we wish other Western countries and the international press organizations to help promote, help to educate our journalists to understand the ethics of the profession. Not only just to blame and defame some time which is incomprehensible for us.
So, what have we done during the last year? We have organized more than 40 seminars for 543 participants, but it is not enough because to build up a new qualified press body you need experience, you need training, you need skills. So, I think we have done what we feel is our responsibility.
Sometimes I invited the local press to talk to me. Not to give them orders but to give them some instructions that you can criticize the government but avoid bad language. If you accuse someone of corruption don't forget to go to interview the interested party. If they refuse to talk OK, you write "they refused to talk." But you just heard that this guy is corrupt and he still is and it should be followed up - the story is not finished. And we know that after the article those reporters or journalists go to the interested party and ask for money and sometimes we don't see the follow-up. And finished, that's it. Because they got money.
So, in that case who is corrupt?