Using new laws to impair freedom of expression in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

This past week I started writing a brief on the use of repressive legislation in Cambodia to restrict freedom of expression and related rights like freedom of association and assembly. With a majority in Parliament, the ruling Cambodian’s People Party has passed or is about to pass legislation that could be used to legitimize their crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, journalists and other concerned parties critical of the government.

Penal Code

The new Cambodian Penal Code was passed in December 2010. It replaces the former UNTAC Penal Code. While the new Penal Code does not contain the same UNTAC disinformation clause (which has been used to jail journalists and wrongfully convict other individuals), it creates a number of new crimes susceptible to abuse. This includes a provision for “incitement” which is defined as incitement to commit a crime or incitement of “serious turmoil in society.” Shortly after the passage of the new Penal Code, World Food Program staff member Seng Kunnaka was convicted on the charge of criminal incitement for printing and sharing material from the website ki-media, an online blog critical of the government [Incidentally, as I write this, my access to ki-media is down again. There are rumours the government is having it blocked]. The government is not hiding one of the new Code’s purposes: “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,” said the Cambodian Minister of Information.

For a more in-depth analysis of the new Penal Code provisions, check out this report.

Demonstrations Law

The Demonstrations Law was adopted in 2009. It makes it de facto necessary to receive authorization to protest. Demonstrations can be refused if they harm the rights to “freedom and honour of others, good customs of society and national security”. This differs from the ICCPR article which allows for limits on demonstrations only on the basis of “public safety, public order, public health or morals.” Moreover, the law fails to provide judicial redress in cases where authorization is refused. The Centre for Cambodian Human Rights Report also suggests that the law has been used before to crackdown on private meetings. Finally, and possibly the most disconcerting part of the law for the moment, is the creation of “Freedom Parks” across the country. These “Freedom Parks” are areas where protestors can hold protests after providing 12 hours notice. While the parks do not exclude the use of other public venues, there are concerns they may still be used to isolate and neutralize demonstrations.

Anti-Corruption Law

The third law is the Anti Corruption Law passed in May 2011. While a number of corrupt officials have been charged under the law, there are allegations that these charges are more related to factional splits in the ruling party than to corruption in Cambodia. A number of provisions are problematic. In particular, the law does not provide adequate protections for whistleblowers and thus discourages people from coming forward.

Draft Trade Union Law

The draft law contains a number of provisions that offer the government an opportunity to legitimize their crackdown on the trades union sector through the courts. Several articles of the law blatantly violate the International Labor Organization Convention No. 87 (see this article by article analysis of the law). Key concerns include the inclusion of criminal penalties and hefty fines that could be used to threaten union leaders from speaking out against the government. Vague language contained in the law could also be used by the government to curtail freedom of expression. For example, the provision outlawing demonstrations for “purely political purposes” could be used to prevent legal demonstrations or strikes in opposition of government policies.

Draft Associations and NGO Law

This law is currently in draft form, but it is expected that the government will try and pass the law before the end of the year. In violation of freedom of association protected under the Cambodian Constitution and the ICCPR, the law enforces the mandatory registration of associations and NGOs (see this analysis by LICADHO). It also imposes a number of burdensome registration requirements, which would severely restrict the operation of rural grassroots groups with limited resources. It gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few guidelines to transparently steer these decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied. The law is also loosely drafted, giving it an apparently unlimited scope.

In its current form, the law would likely lead to the outlawing of several informal groups which do not want to register with the government or do not have the capacity. These informal networks give a voice to a number of vulnerable groups including sex workers. The likely closure of grassroots NGOs and associations, which provide information to international donors, could impair economic development in Cambodia. With the press muzzled and the private sector often complicit in human rights violations, NGOs are the last body able to report on human rights abuses and corruption in Cambodia.

Apparently a couple of embassies in Phnom Penh (but not the US embassy), when first faced with the Associations & NGO Law, thought it was a perfectly reasonable law to have in place. After all, many Western countries do have some kind of Association and NGO law. What they failed to consider was the Cambodian context. Most importantly, there is no judiciary to enforce the law fairly (see Cambodia’s recent ranking as 35/36 on the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index) or to create a body of precedent that would narrow or at least purposively develop the ambiguity of many of these provisions. Rather, new laws give the government something to point at when they decide to shut down an NGO, move a protest to a Freedom Park or fine a union leader. New laws make it harder to argue that the government is acting out of bounds.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

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