Letter from Human Rights Watch and
the New Cambodian Press Law

September 1995, Vol. 7, No. 13 (C)


Over the last year, the Royal Cambodian Government has waged a campaign to silence its critics, targeting independent newspapers and political figures for prosecution and harassment. On more than a dozen occasions, it has suspended, shut or confiscated newspapers or brought criminal complaints against journalists. A controversial new press law is unlikely to halt these abuses as it allows confiscations, closures and criminal prosecutions to continue. This report contains the text of a Human Rights Watch letter to the Cambodian government protesting the censorship campaign and the text of the new press law.

The press law, enacted after much debate and controversy, contains a number of positive features, among them the guarantee that the press has the right to preserve the confidentiality of its sources, the prohibition of pre-publication censorship, and the right of access to government-held information. These assets, however, are undermined by the continued application of criminal law to the publishing of material that “may affect national security or political stability.” The government is presently seeking the investigation and prosecution of as many as five Khmer-language newspapers and one English-language bi-weekly, the Phnom Penh Post. The case of the Post illustrates the weakness of the press law’s guarantees in the face of the government’s determination to press criminal charges. At issue is an article written by Nate Thayer titled “Security jitters while PMs away,” describing various security measures and political intrigues while the prime ministers attended a major donors meeting, attributing some of the information to unnamed official and diplomatic sources. Despite the guarantee that the press has the right to preserve the confidentiality of its sources, a government lawyer has told the Post that the government seeks to learn the identity of these sources for the article at issue.

The government has not hesitated in the past to use the criminal code as a weapon against critical journalists in situations where Cambodian law and the international guarantees of free expression would not support a prosecution. The latest trial of a journalist illustrates this blatant disregard for legality. Thun Bun Ly, the editor of Odom K’tek Khmer (“Khmer Conscience”) was initially charged with “disinformation” under the criminal law adopted by Cambodia’s Supreme National Council during the U.N. peacekeeping mission. The charges rested on five articles and editorial cartoons the paper had published that were critical or satirical of government leaders. Thun Bun Ly explained that each of these was an expression of his own opinions and not a statement of fact, and cited as guarantees of his right to free expression Articles 31 and 41 of Cambodia’s constitution. According to observers at the trial, the editor elaborated, “An editorial is merely that. That is what a journalist does. As a journalist, if you just hold up someone else’s balls, the country will soon disappear.” At this point the audience broke up in laughter and applause, and the judge adjourned the trial. When it resumed on August 28, approximately thirty military police in riot gear as well as additional police were posted in the vicinity of the court, and only members of the press and nongovernmental organizations were admitted to the courtroom. The judge rejected any distinction between providing an opinion and providing news. Although the new press law requires proof that the publications “affected national security,” no details were introduced at trial, other than a simple assertion of a government lawyer to that effect. On August 28, the prosecution introduced for the first time the charge of defamation, over the protests of the defender Ang Eng Thong of the human rights group ADHOC.

At the close of trial, the judge adjourned the court for fifteen minutes and then pronounced the verdict. Thun Bun Ly was found guilty under the criminal law of disinformation and defamation and fined ten million riel (approximately US $4,000). The court ordered the newspaper closed on the authority of a 1992 press regulation enacted by the legislature of the Hun Sen party which was never adopted as Cambodian law by the Supreme National Council. The court further ordered Thun Bun Ly imprisoned for two years if he fails to pay the fine, a violation of international law prohibiting imprisonment for inability to pay a debt. Thun Bun Ly has appealed his sentence and is in the process of bringing a civil suit against the government for damages from prior forced closings of his newspaper.

Nor has government action been limited to professional journalists. On August 5, 1995, police arrested six men for distributing leaflets on the occasion of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s visit to Phnom Penh. Four of the men, Lim Nem, Kay Vichet, Sam Soun and Sam Sophann, were balloon-sellers in the market who were hired by a fifth man, Son Yin, to tie leaflets onto their balloons, to be floated over the city. Son Yin, in turn, was assisting the sixth man, Sith Kosaing Sin, who wrote the leaflets and was a former leader of the FUNCINPEC party youth group. The leaflets consisted of one tract politely criticizing the FUNCINPEC party for corruption and “victimizing those in favor of the nation and democracy” and another welcoming King Sihanouk back to the country, stating a list of requests to the government. The six have been charged under the criminal law with incitement that does not result in the commission of a crime, and their application to be released on bail has been refused as of early September. There is no evidence in the leaflets of any incitement to commit any criminal or violent act, although one leaflet did call on “nation-lovers” to “be absolutely against acts of human rights violations, absolute power and the suppression of the voices of the people,” and the other called upon Secretary Christopher to “help Cambodia to abide by human rights, follow democracy, obey the law and promote independence of the courts, insure the press law can guarantee freedom of expression and the right to speak out against corruption.”

These actions come against a backdrop of steady constriction of democratic institutions that are protective of freedom of speech. In June 1995, the controversial FUNCINPEC legislator and former minister of finance, Sam Rainsy, was expelled from the National Assembly after Prince Ranariddh had him removed from the party. There are no provisions of Cambodian law that allow the expulsion of a member of parliament (and the consequent loss of parliamentary immunity) under these circumstances, and courts so far have refused to hear Sam Rainsy’s legal challenge to his party expulsion. In August 1995, Ieng Mouly, a BLDP legislator and minister of information, expelled from his party Kem Sokha, the head of the National Assembly’s human rights committee, along with five other BLDP members. It is not yet known whether the National Assembly will be asked to expel the four of these members who are legislators also. Many of these legislators have received threats to their safety over the last year. The seriousness of such threats was underscored by the detention of Sam Rainsy’s personal bodyguards on July 13-14, in an incident where they claimed they were beaten and forced to “confess” to Sam Rainsy’s association with the Khmer Rouge; the government, however, denies that the four men were mistreated. Three journalists known for their critical views have died in suspicious circumstances since 1994, and in no case has the government succeeded in identifying and convicting those responsible.

Human Rights Watch      September 1995      Vol. 7, No. 13 (C)

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