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New penal code used to trample on free expression

Seng Kunnaka
Seng Kunnaka

KI Media via Human Rights Watch

A Cambodian man who shared web articles with two of his colleagues was convicted on incitement charges and sentenced to six months in jail under a new penal code, reports Human Rights Watch, which called the use of the law "a huge step backward for free expression in Cambodia."

On 17 December, Seng Kunnaka, a Cambodian employee with the United Nations World Food Program in Phnom Penh, was arrested on charges of incitement under article 495 of the new penal code - for sharing an article from KI-Media, a website that publishes news, commentaries, poetry and cartoons that are critical of the government. It's unclear exactly what he shared, but KI-Media had recently published a series of opinion pieces lambasting senior officials regarding a border dispute with Vietnam.

Two days later - on a Sunday, when the courts are normally closed - Phnom Penh Municipal Court hastily tried and convicted Kunnaka, sentencing him to six months and fining him 1 million Riels (US$250).

The new penal code went into effect on 10 December and places greater restrictions on free expression, says Human Rights Watch. "Cambodia's new penal code should have put an end to abusive practices, not encouraged new ones," said Human Rights Watch.

Article 495 vaguely defines incitement as directly provoking the commission of a crime or an act that creates "serious turmoil in society" through public speech, writings, drawings or audio-visual telecommunication. It does not require the alleged incitement to be successful for penalties to be imposed, which include prison terms of six months to five years plus fines.

The penal code also allows criminal prosecutions for defamation and contempt for peaceful expression of views "affecting the dignity" of individuals and public officials, as well as of government institutions. It makes it a crime to "disturb public order" by questioning court decisions.

"The new penal code makes it more risky for civil society activists to criticise corrupt officials, police, and military officers who commit abuses or question court decisions," said Human Rights Watch. "This is particularly troubling in Cambodia, where the judicial system is weak and far from independent, with court decisions often influenced by corruption or political pressure."

Responding to media inquiries about the case, Cambodia's Information Minister, 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."

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