The Council of Ministers voted on Friday to amend the country’s Untac-era defamation law, removing the stipulation that people found guilty of defamation face prison time, Cabinet spokesman Kim Sok Vath said.
Though the Cabinet voted to remove the eight-day-to-one-year prison term that is recommended in Untac’s Article 63, those found guilty of defamation could still be punished with fines ranging from $250 to $2,500. Prime Minister Hun Sen said Friday that he wanted the same kind of change made in the French-written penal draft law, which sets punishment for defamation at one to five months in jail and $20 to $50 in fines, or both.
“I advise that criminal defamation is totally withdrawn from the penal code,” Hun Sen told the Council of Ministers.
However, the prime minister warned reporters that even if defamation carries no jail time, it can still mean hefty fines.
“Make sure your writing does not attack any individual, even though you won’t be imprisoned. If you lose the case, you will still pay fines,” he said after the meeting.
The amendment will be sent to the National Assembly, where members will make their decision in the coming days, he added.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said on Sunday that he was worried that Hun Sen’s call to amend the new draft penal code would fall through, and that his statements were merely for political mileage.
“I only hope that the commitment that has been made by the prime minister is for the long term, not just a solution to deal with political needs now,” Son Chhay said.
“They must rewrite the penal code draft according to what the government does with the Untac law,” he said.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights spokesman Ou Virak, whose director Kem Sokha was among activists accused of defamation and jailed early this year, said that the fines in the defamation law were enough to curtail freedom of expression. “The civil code is able to bankrupt anybody,” he said. “And with the courts the way they are, freedom of expression is not guaranteed. We have to wait and see a real, good law before we can take a breather,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)