(New York) - The Cambodian government's use of its new penal code against a man who shared web articles with his co-workers is a huge step backward for free expression in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. The man was quickly convicted on incitement charges and sentenced to prison.
Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to amend the penal code, which went into effect on December 10, 2010, to remove provisions that limit the peaceful expression of political views so that the law fully complies with international standards.
"Charging someone with incitement for sharing web articles is a profound setback for free expression in Cambodia," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Cambodia's new penal code should have put an end to abusive practices, not encouraged new ones."
On December 17, Seng Kunnaka, a Cambodian employee with the United Nations World Food Program in Phnom Penh, was arrested on charges of incitement under article 495 of the new penal code after he shared an article with two co-workers. While the contents of the article are unclear, it was printed from KI-Media, a website that publishes news, commentaries, poetry, and cartoons that are sharply critical of the government, including a recent series of opinion pieces lambasting senior officials regarding a border dispute with Vietnam.
On December 19, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court hastily tried and convicted Kunnaka, sentencing him to six months in prison and fining him 1 million riels (US$250). December 19 was a Sunday, when the courts are normally closed.
During the last two years, more than 10 critics of the government, including journalists and opposition party activists, have been prosecuted for criminal defamation and disinformation based on complaints by government and military officials under the former penal code.
The new penal code places greater restrictions on free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Responding to media inquiries about the case, Cambodia's information minister, Khieu Kanharith, said: "Before, using the argument of ‘freedom of expression' and opposition party status, some people could insult anybody or any institution. This is not the case now."
"A dubious arrest so soon after the new penal code came into effect shows that the Cambodian government is ready to use its new legal powers to criminalize peaceful expression and political dissent," Robertson said. "And Cambodia's pliant courts seem all too willing to throw any perceived government critic in prison after a rushed trial."
Under the new penal code, incitement is vaguely defined in article 495 as directly provoking the commission of a crime or an act that creates "serious turmoil in society" through public speech, writings or drawings, or audio-visual telecommunication that are shared with, exposed to, or intended for the public. It does not require the alleged incitement to be effective for penalties to be imposed, which include prison terms of six months to five years and fines.
The new penal code also allows criminal prosecutions for defamation and contempt for peaceful expression of views "affecting the dignity" of individuals and public officials, as well as of government institutions. It makes it a crime to "disturb public order" by questioning court decisions.
"The new penal code makes it more risky for civil society activists to criticize corrupt officials, police, and military officers who commit abuses or question court decisions," Robertson said. "This is particularly troubling in Cambodia, where the judicial system is weak and far from independent, with court decisions often influenced by corruption or political pressure."
KI-Media is a controversial website that describes itself as "dedicated to publishing sensitive information about Cambodia." The website's editors, who have never publicly identified themselves, compile information from a variety of sources, including leaked and public government documents, Cambodian-language newspaper articles, and Chinese, Cambodian, and Western wire service reports. It also posts hard-hitting commentaries, blog articles, cartoons, and poetry from its readers - most of whom are sharply critical of the government.
The December 23, 2010 news release "Cambodia: New Penal Code Undercuts Free Speech" incorrectly noted that Seng Kunnaka's trial date was December 20. The trial actually occurred on Sunday, December 19. The news release also stated his date of arrest was December 18, when in fact, he was arrested on December 17. These dates have been corrected accordingly.