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Right to remain silent

Sok An, pictured at an event in Phnom Penh earlier this year
Sok An, pictured at an event in Phnom Penh earlier this year, this month sent a directive to all ministries outlining the procedure for the release of information regarding corruption inquiries. Heng Chivoan

Right to remain silent

Opposition lawmakers and transparency groups have slammed a recent Council of Ministers directive ordering government employees to deny access to parliamentary commissions investigating corruption, saying it severely undermines democracy.

Released yesterday by Secretary of State Tek Reth Samrach, the letter dictates public employees must follow the Anti-Corruption Law’s Article 22 when dealing with information about corruption, which states that complaints should be taken to the Anti-Corruption Commission rather than parliamentary commissions.

The document also states that government employees in all ministries and institutions must get permission from their leaders before talking or sharing information or reports with parliamentary committees or lawmakers.

Overseeing the directive, according to the letter, will be Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who sent the original notice to ministries on June 5, which was attributed to previous statements by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The deputy prime minister will ensure it is not abused by “people who don’t understand or act like they don’t understand”, the letter reads.

“This is completely wrong and unconstitutional,” said Cambodian National Rescue Party lawmaker Son Chhay, deputy head of parliament’s finance commission. “It’s undermining the role of the parliament as an overseer; it breaches Article 96 of the Constitution; it is a serious violation; and it looks like the Council of Ministers has something to hide."

Chhay, who has led several probes into the government and most recently requested information on the country’s airports, said the directive would not stifle his attempts to fight graft.

“This is a battlefield now; there will be a war between the executive and the legislative bodies. Why is Sok An so scared? If you don’t show us, we want to know what you’re hiding,” he said.

According to the letter, public employees can collaborate with parliamentary commissions, lawmakers and NGOs to fight corruption through “education and propaganda”, but complaints of corruption must be taken to ACU staff.

Speaking yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the directive had not changed anything and was merely a reminder of the proper procedures for official communication and corruption complaints.

“It is [an] existing rule; this is just to remind people,” Siphan said, adding that the government wanted to make sure it was delivering credible and responsible information through the right channels.

“In any government, people need the authority from their boss to share the information.… National Assembly and Senate members can invite anyone through the official channels.”

However, CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann, chairman of the anti-corruption commission, said the order was intended to curb the constitutional rights of lawmakers to request information.

“Whatever is suspected as corruption must be opened and reported to the National Assembly,” he said.

Transparency International Cambodia director Kol Preap said it looked to be a serious blow for efforts against corruption.

“It looks [to be] more about trying to keep sensitive information under control, to control liabilities and the flow of information,” he said.

“It is not good for the fight against corruption if the parliamentary commissions aren’t able to get information.”

Cambodian Centre for Independent Media executive director Pa Nguon Teang said the order undermined the principles of openness and transparency it claimed it was working towards in its efforts to draft an access-to-information law.

“If implemented, this order would reduce the ability of the media, NGOs and even members of the National Assembly to access information,” he said.

Sinthay Neb, director of the Advocacy and Policy Institute, added: “The more governments disclose information, the more people trust and actively participate in government affairs. Cambodian people wish to see their government as an open government; this letter [implies] the opposite.”

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