Cambodian Government Uses NGO Law to Silence Critics

By Siena Anstis

I just published an article which is basically an abstract of the major essay I wrote on ‘repressive legislation’ in Cambodia as a conclusion to the internship. You can view the original here and an abstract below:

In late July the Cambodian government released a third draft of its highly contentious Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO Law). A number of provisions in the law have the potential to impair the activities of human rights and civil society actors in the country.

The draft law, in a likely violation of freedom of expression which is protected both in the Cambodian Constitution and the ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), makes it mandatory that any group of Cambodians (including clubs and networks) operating as a non profit in Cambodia register with the government. These bodies also have to fulfill a number of complex and technical registration requirements. If they fail to do so, the government has a ‘legitimate’ excuse to prevent them from operating. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), a human rights organization operating across Cambodia, dubs this approach the “tyranny of the technicality” and believes it is likely that the government will use this power to shut down entities advocating for human rights or reporting on government corruption.

For ‘informal networks’ or loosely associated groups of individuals like farmers and taxi drivers, who do not have the means to open bank accounts or have formal office addresses, these requirements could severely impair their ability to register. It may force a majority of them to operate illegally, rendering them even more vulnerable. These networks are key partners in the development process, providing first-hand information on the situation of at-risk groups in the country and assisting international donors who continue to fund about half of the Cambodian government’s budget.

While these concerns may seem speculative, there have already been a number of recent situations foreshadowing what is to come. For example, the Ministry of Interior, without any clear justification, arbitrarily closed an NGO called Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT). A few weeks before, the NGO had published a report finding that the compensation offered by the government to households affected by a government railway project and slated for resettlement was too low.

LICADHO’s director, Naly Pilorge, perhaps best summarized the overall effect of the NGO Law were it to pass: “Everything that would happen to informal networks under the draft law is already happening now [like STT being shut down]. If the law passes, it legalizes these restrictions.”

Repression through new laws

Activists believe the NGO Law is representative of a larger trend by the Cambodian government to use ‘repressive’ legislation to impair freedom of expression and assembly.

During his recent unofficial visit to the country, Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, dubbed this emerging Cambodian style of governance a “legal dictatorship.” Surya Subedi, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, has called it a “legal offensive.”

Along with the NGO Law, the new Penal Code and the Law on Peaceful Assembly also facilitate this trend of repression through the courts in Cambodia.

Commenting on the Penal Code, the Cambodian Minister of Information, 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.”

Human rights bodies in Cambodia are particularly concerned by the possibility that Penal Code provisions like incitement to commit a felony and defamation will be indiscriminately used to silence activists in the same way the crime of disinformation under the former UNTAC Criminal Code was applied.

Two recent cases justify this concern:

A LICADHO staff member was charged with incitement during his appeal hearing in July. Originally charged with disinformation for distributing anti-Vietnamese pamphlets, the judge not only violated international fair trial standards, but also clearly affirmed that the court believes that this type of political leafleting can actually constitute an act to cause unrest in Cambodia or ‘incitement.’

A second case is that of Seng Kunnaka. In December 2010, Kunnaka, an employee of the World Food Program, was convicted on a charge of criminal incitement under the new Penal Code for printing and sharing material from KI-Media, an online blog that aggregates information critical of the government. He was sentenced to six months in jail and a $243 fine.

The third ‘repressive law’, the Law on Peaceful Assembly, is primarily giving the authorities a means to isolate and neutralize protests. The law provides for the creation of “Freedom Parks” across Cambodia. These parks are assigned zones for peaceful protests of up to 200 people. They are typically isolated from heavily trafficked areas. Authorities use the existence of these parks as an excuse to disperse peaceful assemblies not happening within their confines.

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