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Press Law still under attack

Press Law still under attack

T he National Assembly is scheduled today to resume debate on the press law, which remains strongly criticized by journalists and lawyers despite a re-drafting by the government.

Discussion on the law was adjourned until today after two days of debate which failed to convince critics that MPs were serious about a free press.

Observers said MPs concentrated on making small changes to the law's wording, rather than any significant changes to ensure that journalists were free from intimidation.

"It was a joke. Nobody talked about principles, about the press, whether it should be free or controlled by the government," one observer said, demanding anonymity.

"They [MPs] talked a lot about responsibility, but less about freedom of journalists. Many are afraid that journalists will have too much freedom," said Pin Samkhon, president of the Khmer Journalists Association.

First Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh told journalists on Monday that the press law would be "very liberal".

However, others are doubtful.

Provisions allowing journalists to be jailed have been removed in a revised draft of the law presented to the National Assembly - but it provides for them to jailed under another law.

Article 21 of the law states that journalists can be penalized under the UNTAC penal law - which has been used to pass jail sentences on journalists.

"If Article 21 is passed in its current form the whole effort to take jail terms out the press law will have been for nothing," said one foreign lawyer.

"Journalists will still face imprisonment, though technically it will not be under the press law. For a journalist on trial or sitting in a prison, this is a distinction that will be of little comfort."

The new draft also makes it a crime for the press to publish information which "affects national security and political stability".

The lawyer said the inclusion of "political stability" - which could be used to suppress any criticism or dissenting views - was a retrograde step.

"The only countries which use such a term are communist or dictatorial countries", he said.

In fact, journalists could find themselves being punished under both the press law and the UNTAC criminal law.

The press law provides for fining journalists who affect political stability of between 5 million and 20 million riels "without taking into account possible punishments" under the UNTAC law.

The NGO Human Rights Watch/Asia, in a letter to National Assembly Chairman Chea Sim, expressed concern that journalists would continue to find themselves the subject of criminal prosecutions under the UNTAC law.

The NGO also criticized the reference to information which affected political stability in the press law, saying: "Virtually any reporting on public affairs has this potential."

"This provision would outlaw publication of anything potentially controversial to the government, a restriction that is totally incompatible with Cambodia's constitutional and international commitments," the letter said.

Under the law, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Interior would have the right to immediately confiscate copies of publications which affected political stability.

The Ministry of Information would be able to suspend publication of a newspaper for 30 days.

Human Rights Watch/Asia said such remedies, without the approval of a court, were "extraordinary" and opened newspapers to intimidation and subtle censorship.

The new draft of the press law maintains a provision making it an offense to "publish false information which leads to humiliation or contempt of national institutions".

Critics say the provision is unconstitutional, as the constitution protects individuals and not institutions. They say it could be used to arbitrarily punish and silence critics, particularly opposition candidates during an election campaign.

Individuals whose reputations were harmed by the humiliation or degrading of national institutions still had recourse to file lawsuits for libel or defamation.

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