In an interlude to their review of a new draft penal code, CPP lawmakers on Friday rejected the call by a UN human rights rapporteur to decriminalize defamation and denounced critical testimony given in Washington last month by SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.
The more than 100 lawmakers present also unanimously approved the first of six parts of the penal code, including provisions defining categories of crime, jurisdictions, modes of liability, penalties and aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
At the beginning of debate, SRP spokesman Yim Sovann called on the Assembly to consider an address made Thursday by UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi, who offered to assist the National Assembly in removing criminal penalties from Cambodia’s anti-defamation statute.
Mr Subedi told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Thursday that Cambodia’s criminal defamation laws were not in line with international human rights guarantees that Cambodia has sworn to uphold.
CPP lawmakers said they took a dim view of resorting to the views of an outsider and defended the criminalization of defamation.
“I want to thank His Excellency Yim Sovann for mentioning a foreigner’s request concerning this,” said CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap.
Mr Yeap also said Cambodia was merely renewing a criminal statute that has existed in the transitional UNTAC penal code since 1992 and that this would naturally be open to revision.
He also said the law had been reviewed by government legal experts prior to its submission to the National Assembly.
Chheang Vun, CPP chairman of the Assembly commission on foreign affairs, also said he could not accept Mr Subedi’s remarks due to Cambodia’s sovereign independence.
Mr Vun, who as ambassador to Geneva in 2007 called on the floor of the Human Rights Council for the dismissal of Mr Subedi’s predecessor, Yash Ghai, told the Assembly on Friday that prison sentences for criminal defamation also existed in Germany, Japan and Singapore.
“If you have a chance to meet Mr Subedi, you should tell him that in most of the countries around the world, especially the leading democratic countries in Asia or Europe, their own criminal laws provide for prison sentences for public defamation in speech or publishing which affects others’ reputation,” he said.
According to British human rights organization Interights and the website Media Libel, the German media enjoy broad libel protections under constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and criminal sanctions against private citizens are applied in only the most “unusual or flagrant cases.”
Mr Vun also made a veiled reference to Ms Sochua’s Sept 10 testimony before a human rights panel of the US Congress.
“The critics do not act in Cambodia, but some people made criticism outside Cambodia,” he said. “We very much regret that an opposition lawmaker and human rights representatives, who oppose government actions, spoke of untrue matters for discussion in the US.”
Ms Sochua responded, saying she was motivated by patriotism and a desire to defend Cambodian interests.
“I, a Cambodian lawmaker, was elected by the Cambodian people,” she said. “When we speak in public or any place, this is to safeguard Cambodian interests.”
“What we had spoken of concerned the missing parts in this law and how this affects freedom of speech,” she added.
In order to discuss her actions in testifying in the US, Ms Sochua also proposed holding a national congress, a national convention of members of the public to debate matters of public interest that is provided for in the Constitution.
However, the idea was opposed by CPP lawmaker Sik Bunhok of Kompong Thom province.
Assembly Deputy President and CPP lawmaker Nguon Nhel said that, in contravention of Assembly bylaws, the discussion had strayed beyond the agenda item under review.
“I would like all members to review the internal rules of our National Assembly which forbid discussions that are off the topic,” he said.
The Assembly’s review of the penal code is to resume on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)