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(New York) – The Cambodian government and bar association should drop their efforts to prohibit lawyers from giving media interviews without the permission of the national bar association, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 8, 2013,   Information Minister Khieu Kanharith made public a January 31 instruction to radio and television stations not to invite lawyers to appear on programs without the approval of the Cambodian Bar Association.

International donors should quickly and publicly press the Cambodian government to reverse its latest move against freedom of expression.

“Just when you thought the Cambodian government couldn’t think of any new ways to try to muzzle critics, it has imposed an election-year ban on lawyers giving radio and television interviews,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This ban dramatically demonstrates the government’s aim to control the media and the legal profession, but more broadly makes a mockery of free speech in a democratic society.”

The January 31 instruction notes that many radio and television stations have invited lawyers to appear on their programs to interpret and explain the law to the public, and to comment on government policies for legal and judicial reform.

It then says: “To avoid the negative consequences upon the people of such legal dissemination programming and to ensure that such dissemination has good consequences, the Ministry of Information instructs all radio and television stations that all invitations to lawyers and other legal professionals to speak as interpreters of the law must be invited via the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia.” 

This instruction was coupled with a “letter of warning” from the Cambodian Bar Association, also dated January 31, which says that “from now on, lawyers must not give interviews or otherwise disseminate information related to their profession as lawyers via any media whatsoever without the authorization of the Bar.” The bar’s order would effectively prevent lawyers from making any statement through the print media as well as broadcast media without the bar’s approval.

The actions of the Information Ministry and the Cambodian Bar Association appear designed to prevent criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Many lawyers have become outspoken critics of the government and courts, which are frequently used to imprison or intimidate critics.

Opposition political party figures, critics of the government, and those resisting CPP-backed abuses, such as land-grabbing, have been increasingly subjected in recent years to groundless prosecutions, judicial investigations, and unfair trials leading to wrongful convictions and prison sentences.

Under the new rules, lawyers will not be allowed to give unapproved media interviews on subjects such as the use of the judiciary against political opponents. Among them are the opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile to avoid a politically motivated conviction, and Mom Sonando, the owner of a radio station that once gave much airtime to critical legal programming. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on false charges of fomenting a supposed armed insurrection.

The rules are also likely to discourage lawyers from using the media to assert the legal rights of groups such as the estimated 700,000 Cambodians who have been adversely affected by land-grabbing.

The new instructions seem particularly aimed at lawyers working for Cambodian human rights organizations. Hun Sen and senior government officials have frequently attacked domestic human rights groups, accusing them of being members of the political opposition or of causing instability after they have documented government violations. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that: “Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights…without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action.” 

“The government treats critics as enemies of the state, but to provide effective representation, lawyers often need to speak out against government policies and practices that violate human rights,” Adams said. “The new censorship regime of the government and bar association attempts to gag some of the most effective and professional government critics.”

The Cambodian Bar Association was re-established in 1995 for the first time since the Khmer Rouge period, 1975 to 1979. By statute the legal profession is supposed to be “an independent and autonomous profession involved in serving justice.” However, the bar association has been under de facto CPP control since 2004, when the party engineered an election of the bar president by overturning the victory of an independent candidate and installing a CPP-approved figure in his place.

This hotly contested election was part of a successful CPP maneuver to increase its control over Cambodia’s legal institutions at the direction of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. Hun Sen and other party figures were later admitted as members of the bar association, despite their lack of legal education and qualifications.

The current bar association president, Bun Hon, is a former CPP appointee as undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry who has spoken out in favor of Hun Sen’s political leadership. Sok An strongly backed Bun Hon’s election as president of the bar association and presided at his installation ceremony in November 2012. Bun Hon reportedly continues to serve as a member of the Council of Jurists at the Council of Ministers, which reports to Sok An and Hun Sen.

“Donor countries have spent a lot of time and money trying to develop an independent and professional legal profession, which had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years,” Adams said. “Particularly in an election year, donors need to speak out loud and clear about this attack on the independence of lawyers and free speech. They would never tolerate this kind of restriction in their own countries, and shouldn’t accept it in Cambodia, either.”

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