Prime Minister Hun Sen surprised critics Thursday by stating that the government values freedom of expression and provides its citizens with the right to demonstrate and strike.
During a speech at an Asia-Europe Meeting seminar on freedom of expression in Siem Reap town, which was broadcast on Apsara radio, Hun Sen blamed the Untac-era criminal code—which is still in use—for having previously forced the government into arresting its critics for defamation.
“You can accuse us that there were reporters and politicians that were convicted to serve prison terms, but it was not what we wanted,” Hun Sen said.
“It was Untac, which operated in Cambodia, that wanted it,” he said in reference to the UN-era penal code.
The National Assembly passed an amendment to the Untac code in May of last year, abolishing prison sentences for defamation, a step that Hun Sen said proved his government is a promoter of human rights.
“Some countries still equate defamation with crime—we are walking a step ahead of them,” Hun Sen said.
“The Cambodian government understands and respects human rights and values its people,” he said. “In Cambodia, freedom of expression is the strongest it’s ever been.”
Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha, who was detained and charged with defamation in December 2005 while president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that it wasn’t Untac, but the government that was responsible for his 18-day stay in prison.
“There was no law that stated imprisonment for those who express their opinions,” he said.
Cambodian Independent Teachers Association President Rong Chhun, who was arrested in October 2005 and imprisoned for 96 days for making comments relating to land being ceded to Vietnam, said he was surprised by Hun Sen’s speech
“The Untac law is not a bad law. [Hun Sen] just wanted to clear his own wrongdoing,” Rong Chhun said, adding that the speech was only for the international community.
SRP Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said the rights of ordinary Cambodians are still under attack.
“People cannot protest because the government uses force to crack down on them,” he said.
“Full freedom of expression is only for the powerful, top people,” he added.