(New York) - The Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen should end its campaign of harassment, threats, and unwarranted legal action aimed at consolidating its rule by silencing the political opposition and peaceful critics, Human Rights Watch said today.
In recent months, senior Cambodian government leaders and military officials have filed at least nine politically motivated criminal defamation and disinformation cases against journalists, opposition members of parliament, lawyers, and government critics.
"The Cambodian government is imposing its most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Once again, Hun Sen is showing his true stripes by harassing and threatening to imprison peaceful critics of his increasingly authoritarian government."
Government attempts to muzzle free expression have intensified in recent weeks:
- On June 22, 2009, the National Assembly voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of two of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's (SRP) most active members, Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, paving the way to try them on criminal charges of defamation against Hun Sen and 22 military officials, respectively.
- On June 26, a Phnom Penh court sentenced Hang Chakra, owner of the opposition newspaper Khmer Machas Srok (Khmer Landowner), to one year in prison on charges of disinformation after the newspaper published articles on government corruption.
- On July 7, Kong Sam Onn, one of the few private lawyers who had been brave enough to represent opposition SRP members in court, "defected" to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and dropped his representation of Mu Sochua and Ho Vann after he was sued for defamation by Hun Sen and threatened with disbarment by the Cambodian Bar Association for representing Mu Sochua against criminal defamation charges.
- On July 10, Dam Sith, the owner of Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), one of Cambodia's oldest and most influential opposition papers, closed the newspaper to avoid criminal prosecution for criticism of government officials.
- On July 14, Moeung Sonn, president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison on charges of disinformation after he raised concerns about the effect of installation of lights on the Angkor monuments.
With the resignation of their lawyer, opposition lawmakers Ho Vann and Mu Sochua have not been able to find other lawyers willing to represent them in their upcoming trials, scheduled for July 17 and July 24, respectively.
"If Ho Vann and Mu Sochua are convicted, there's a real chance that two of the most active opposition voices will permanently lose their seats in the National Assembly," said Adams. "Key issues are at stake here - multi-party democracy, rule of law, independence of lawyers, and freedom of expression."
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the coerced closure of Moneaksekar Khmer on July 10, prompted by a battery of defamation, disinformation, and incitement suits filed by the government against the newspaper's editor, Dam Sith, a member of the board of directors of the Sam Rainsy Party. After Sith pledged to close the paper in a letter of apology to Hun Sen on July 8, the charges were reportedly dropped.
Since it began publication in Phnom Penh in 1993, Moneaksekar Khmer has experienced regular threats, intimidation, and even the killing of one of its staff. Khim Sambo, a reporter for the paper, was killed just weeks before national elections in July 2008 and shortly after the one-week detention, in June, of Dam Sith on disinformation charges filed by the foreign minister.
The two other main newspapers formerly affiliated with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) have also been targeted. In late June 2009, Hang Chakra, owner of Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, was sentenced to a year in prison on disinformation charges, for articles concerning corruption in the office of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
In 2008, the popular pro-SRP newspaper Sralang Khmer (Love Khmer) suddenly re-aligned toward the ruling party after its editor, Thach Ket, a board member of the SRP, was pressured to defect, during a period when the ruling party was being accused of using threats and inducements to obtain coerced defections of opposition leaders.
Perhaps the most outrageous misuse of criminal defamation charges has been in the conviction in early June of SRP youth activist Soung Sophorn, after he wrote slogans criticizing the government on the outside walls of his own house, which was slated for forced eviction for a new development on land owned by a ruling-party senator.
The recent lawsuits have all been filed under the broadly worded articles 62 (Disinformation; distribution of false information "likely to disturb the public peace") and 63 (Defamation and Libel) of the temporary penal code promulgated in 1992 by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. While imprisonment was removed as a penalty for defamation in 2006, it remains a criminal offense, and prison sentences of up to three years still apply for disinformation. Human Rights Watch said that criminal defamation laws violate the internationally protected right to freedom of expression and have a chilling effect on government critics and the media.
The string of lawsuits has effectively muzzled opposition voices, with an SRP member of parliament, Son Chhay, commenting in a Radio Australia interview on July 9: "We have no alternative. I think we will quiet down for a while. We are not going to raise the issue of corruption. We are not going to speak about land-grabbing. We are not going to talk about the corrupt court system."
Human Rights Watch urged Cambodia's international donors, especially those funding programs promoting the rule of law, judicial reform, human rights, and good governance, to insist that the Cambodian government cease its harassment and abusive legal actions against opposition members.
"The space for opposition media and peaceful dissent is rapidly shrinking in Cambodia, especially now with the closure of one of Cambodia's last remaining opposition newspapers," said Adams. "Cambodia's laws criminalizing peaceful speech should be repealed so that Hun Sen and other officials can no longer threaten journalists with jail for practicing their profession."
"Through violence, threats and money politics, Hun Sen already controls almost every aspect of Cambodia's politics," said Adams. "Yet his efforts to silence dissent seem endless. Why does he seem to wake up every day looking for enemies to persecute? Will this ever end?"