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Proposed law to ban insulting monarchy prompts free speech fears

Interior Minister Sar Kheng (centre) and other officials discuss plans, including legislation, to protect the King from insults yesterday.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng (centre) and other officials discuss plans, including legislation, to protect the King from insults yesterday. Photo supplied

Proposed law to ban insulting monarchy prompts free speech fears

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng held a meeting with other top ministry officials yesterday to discuss introducing a legal amendment banning insults to the King, similar to so-called “lèse-majesté” laws in Thailand, which critics have characterised as a cudgel to suppress dissent.

The move comes against the backdrop of an already tense political atmosphere that has seen the summary dissolution of the country’s only viable opposition party, the jailing of its leader, heightened scrutiny of NGOs and the shuttering of numerous often-critical media outlets.

A statement on the Interior Ministry website said the meeting was focused on protecting the King, and ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed an amendment is in the works.

“Samdech Kralahom Sar Kheng decided to request the government to amend some points in the Criminal Code . . . In the Criminal Code there is no part that states how long an individual should be sentenced,” Sopheak said.

While the Constitution says the King is “inviolable”, it does not forbid disparaging him, and insulting the King is not specifically outlawed in the Criminal Code. The charter also enshrines freedom of expression, though this has not prevented numerous court cases from being levelled against critical voices on charges such as “incitement”.

“Some other countries already have such a law, like Thailand, Japan and the Netherlands. We are also a monarchy, but there is no article for that,” Sopheak added.

The interior statement also claimed that a fake Facebook page representing the Khmer-Vietnamese Association made public posts insulting the King and was subsequently shut down. However, Sopheak acknowledged that the page was operated from outside of Cambodia and has not actually been shut down.

Despite the lack of an actual law on the books, ex-Deputy Prime Minister Lu Lay Sreng is already facing a lawsuit for insulting the King and defaming his former party, the royalist Funcinpec, for comments made during a secretly recorded private phone conversation.

The lawsuit was filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Funcinpec after Lay Sreng called King Norodom Sihamoni a “castrated chicken” for failing to intervene in the country’s political situation.

“It depends on the prosecutor and the court to decide,” Chhin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said of the royal insult accusation. “Even though our Criminal Code doesn’t mention the King, there are some articles that are related to defamation and insulting public figures or public officials . . . Some articles can still be used for such a crime.”

Lèse majesté laws have proven controversial in the past, particularly Thailand’s, which dates back to the 19th century but has been increasingly strictly enforced under the country’s military junta. One Thai social media user was arrested under the law in 2015 for posting a photo of the late Thai king’s dog that was deemed mocking.

Paul Chambers, an international affairs lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said in an email that Thailand’s own lèse majesté law “severely violates human rights; perpetuates the authoritarian control of monarchy in Thailand; [and] is subject to abuse by Thai politicians and military who use the lese majeste law to legitimize their own continued hold over the Thai political system”.

He went on to express concern that in a Cambodian context, Prime Minister Hun Sen may be able to similarly twist the law to serve his own purposes.

“In the case of Cambodia, where the Prime Minister is symbolically endorsed by the king, then a broad reading of lese majeste could mean that courts could go after anyone critical of Hun Sen and lock them up for several years because of purported violations of a lese majeste code,” he explained.

“If a Thailand-type lese majeste law does become part of Cambodia’s legal code, then we can expect that regime opponents such as Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha, Mu Sochua and even foreign opponents of Hun Sen would be either tried or tried in absentia under this law as a means of silencing dissent or creating self-censorship with regard to Hun Sen,” Chambers added.

Cambodian legal expert Sok Sam Oeun yesterday dismissed fears of free speech restriction, but noted that in the specific case of Lay Sreng, a lèse majesté charge should be off limits since his remarks were not illegal at the time they were made.

“The Criminal Code cannot be retroactive except for an international crime,” Sam Oeun added, pointing out that Hun Sen himself suggested dissolving the monarchy in 2005.

Chambers, however, noted that there was “no possibility that a lese majeste law could ever be used against Hun Sen himself since the CPP has succeeded in totally manipulating Cambodia’s court system”.

Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, also took a strong stance against the suggested amendment.

“Specific laws to protect the reputation of a king are highly problematic from the perspective of freedom of expression. It’s profoundly troubling that instead of seeking to progress in the 21st century, some in the Cambodia government appear determined to bring back antiquated practices of the medieval past when monarchs were considered gods rather than men,” Adams said in an email last night.

He went on to call on King Sihamoni himself to pre-empt the law.

“King Sihamoni should use his experience as former Ambassador to Unesco, the UN agency tasked with protecting freedom of expression, to tell Khieu Sopheak and others at the Ministry of Interior that there’s no need for a lese majeste law in Cambodia,” he said.

Royal Palace cabinet member Oum Daravuth declined to comment until the amendment is made public.

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