Saturday, October 29, 2011

LICADHO Report Documents Cambodia's Legislative Assault on Speech

Released by Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
October 26, 2011 - Five Cambodian laws proposed or enacted since 2008 include dangerously vague or oppressive provisions that undermine freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms, according to a new report from LICADHO.

The report titled, "The Delusion of Progress: Cambodia's Legislative Assault on Expressive Rights," analyzes provisions in five laws that improperly restrict - or threaten to restrict - fundamental expressive freedoms: the new Penal Code, the Anti-Corruption Law, the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), the Law on Peaceful Assembly (the Demonstrations Law), and the Law on Unions of Enterprises (the Trade Union Law).

The report also offers dozens of examples of how the laws have been misapplied and abused in the past year. Overall, the analysis reveals a disturbing trend: new legislation is deliberately drafted and used as a weapon to silence those who speak out against the political and financial elite. In other words, Cambodia's recent flurry of new legislation is not a sign of progress; it's a sign of a regression.

"Vague legislation targeting freedom of expression is typical of governments which rule by the force of fear, rather than by the force of law," said Pilorge Naly, Director of LICADHO. "Rule of law requires clarity and fairness in the legal system. Cambodia still lacks both of these elements."

Under Cambodian and international law, restrictions on free expression must meet strict tests of "necessity and proportionality." Limitations on free speech are permissible only when they are absolutely necessary, and there must be no viable alternatives. But the case studies presented in the report illustrate that necessity and proportionality tests are routinely ignored.

The examples of defamation and incitement prosecutions documented in the report are particularly alarming. Twelve people, including a LICADHO staff member, are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for allegedly distributing political leaflets. All were convicted of incitement under the new penal code, which criminalizes, among other things, speech that disturbs public stability.

Courts and prosecutors have seized upon the incitement provision's vague language to bring charges for blatantly political purposes. In one case, a UN World Food Program staffer was sentenced to six months imprisonment in late 2010 after he was convicted of incitement for sharing printouts from KI-Media, an opposition-aligned blog, with his co-workers. More recently, a Cambodian NGO was accused of incitement and suspended by the government shortly after publishing a report critical of government efforts to resettle families affected by Cambodia's railway rehabilitation project.

"Safeguarding a grip on power is not the same as protecting public order," said Am Sam Ath, Monitoring Supervisor. "Limitations on free speech must be narrowly tailored to preventing serious, specific harms, otherwise they threaten to wipe out the right to free speech altogether."

The report also examines the government's justifications for new draft laws. For example, the government frequently cites the supposed number of NGOs in Cambodia - up to 3,000, though this number is probably inflated - as one reason for pushing forward with the LANGO. But on a per capita basis, the number of NGOs in Cambodia is not particularly high.

India, for example, has an estimated 3.3 million civil society organizations, or one for around every 350 to 400 citizens. Meanwhile, in the United States, some 1.6 million non-profit organizations were registered with the Internal Revenue Service in 2011. That works out to approximately one organization for every 200 Americans. By contrast, Cambodia has approximately one organization per 5,000 citizens. In other words, the U.S. has about 26 times more non-profit organizations than Cambodia on a per capita basis.

"The government has advanced many questionable rationalizations for the LANGO, but none more insidious than this," said Pilorge Naly. "It has become conventional wisdom that Cambodia is being overrun by meddling NGOs, and that they need to be 'controlled' in some way. But the data simply does not bear that assertion out."

The report is accompanied by a web supplement, which offers direct links to most of the laws analyzed in the report and highlights recent public statements that could be construed as crimes under those laws. The statements come from sources ranging from the European Parliament, to UN Special Rapporteurs, to Cambodian government officials themselves, and reveal the stunning scope of Cambodia's legislative crackdown on free speech.

The supplement can be found at:

For more information, please contact:
• Mr. Ham Sunrith, LICADHO Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection, 012 988 959
• Ms. Pilorge Naly, LICADHO Director, 012 803 650

Download full statement (PDF;English)
មើលសេចក្តីថ្លែងការណ៍ជាភាសាខ្មែរ (PDF;Khmer)
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