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Critical voices being silenced in Cambodia

Even though the right to free expression is enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution, certain legal provisions are being used to silence critics of the Cambodian government and its policies, notes the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). In a recently published briefing note, CCHR notes that the pieces of legislation most relevant to the offenses associated with defamation and freedom of expression in Cambodia are the Penal Code, the UNTAC Code and the Press Law 1995.

In 2006, after Prime Minister Hun Sen made a promise to the international community to decriminalise defamation, the National Assembly amended Cambodia's existing criminal code, removing incarceration as a penalty for defamation. While undoubtedly a step in the right direction, six years later defamation remains a criminal offense punishable by significant fines.

Case examples highlighted by CCHR, including the recent sentencing of activist Mam Sonando to 20 years in prison in connection with a report broadcast on Beehive Radio and the prosecution of an opposition parliamentarian, serve as a harsh reminder of what can happen when people speak out. The cases raise concerns about the Cambodian judiciary's lack of independence and emphasize a readiness on the part of the Cambodian government to manipulate the law and the courts to crush any form of dissent, says CCHR. Creating an environment of self‐censorship, in which reporters and parliamentarians are afraid to voice their opinions for fear of being sued or otherwise targeted, restricts society's access to information, CCHR warns.

CCHR and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have also expressed concern over the closure of an investigation into an environmental activist's murder.

Chut Wutty was Cambodia's most effective and vocal critic of the wide-spread illegal trade in luxury timber. He was shot dead in his car, on 26 April 2012, while accompanying two journalists who were investigating alleged illegal logging, reports CCHR. A court in southern Cambodia terminated the investigation into Chut Wutty's death after concluding that he was killed by a military police officer who was in turn fatally shot by a logging company's security guard, according to RSF.

"There are enough question marks over the death of the two men to warrant a full and transparent investigation into what happened that day," CCHR argued, adding: "Many of the officials who benefit from illegal logging and the illegal trade in timber were not happy with Chut Wutty. Because of that, I don't think there's any desire by the government and people in power to investigate his murder. This case shows beyond all reasonable doubt that political interference with the courts is rife in Cambodia."

"A botched investigation has been quickly closed because the authorities did not want to draw attention to environmental problems for which powerful people are to blame. Those who dare to denounce them can now expect more deadly repression of this kind in the future," said RSF.

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