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New penal code a threat to free expression, say critics

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Civil society groups and opposition lawmakers in Cambodia have expressed concern that a newly-passed penal code will pose a threat to free expression.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said the new criminal code's provisions for defamation "jeopardize the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression" and called on the government to bring the new law into line with international standards.

The National Assembly passed the law on 6 October 2009, with the provisions on free speech passed by a vote of 82-21.

CCHR said defamation remains a criminal offense, despite Prime Minister Hun Sen's pledge in 2006 to decriminalize it.

Though the penalty for defamation is between 100,000 and 10 million riels (US$24 and $2,394) - lower than those in the 1992 UNTAC Law - MP Mu Suchoa from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party said that ordinary people would be at the receiving end of the law's penalties.

"Powerless people will be vulnerable under the new penal code whenever they speak out concerning land disputes, legal issues or corruption," she said.

Also, the CCHR described as "excessively harsh" the penalties for the provisions concerning free expression. It said the penalty for attempts to commit a crime and for commission of the crime are the same.

It also criticized the penalty of preventing one from practicing his profession. "Such a provision can only serve to deter open and free debate," CCHR said in a statement.

The "Phnom Penh Post" also quoted Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring for the rights group Adhoc, on his thoughts about the new law.

"Those of us who are members of the civil society community are very concerned about how limitations on freedom of expression will affect our advocacy work when we criticise government institutions and government officers," he said.

The CCHR also aired its concern on the vague and ambiguous terminology in the Penal Code that "creates a lack of clarity in the law, leaving it open to judicial interpretation and potential abuse."

In an interview with the "Phnom Penh Post", Mu Suchoa said that ruling party MPs had pushed through passage of the law with its questionable provisions in order to protect themselves from allegations of corruption and restrict the activities of the opposition.

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