Under a draft penal code to be submitted to the National Assembly in April, defamation would remain an offense punishable by jail, a Justice Ministry official said Thursday.
Cambodian legal experts working with French assistance drafted a new penal code which has been available at bookstores around Phnom Penh since last year.
If the law is passed, defamatory statements could result in a prison sentence of one to five months, and a fine of $25 to $50, according to the draft.
Under the Untac law, whose article on defamation officials said the code’s article would replace, defamation is punishable with up to a year in prison.
Justice Ministry Secretary of State Y Dan said he was in favor of the draft’s defamation stance.
“It is necessary to put defamation as a penal case so statements cannot affect someone’s dignity,” he said. “Human rights have their limits and if there is no law to protect people’s rights, then there is no society.”
The draft defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation made in bad faith of an act which harms the honor [or] reputation of a person or institution.”
Statements made in a public place or public gathering, writings or drawings distributed or shown in public constitute defamation under the draft.
Defamatory remarks toward or about a member of the government can be investigated when a complaint is filed by the person or the minister they work for, the article adds.
Cambodian Defenders’ Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun said that the draft article on defamation appears to be an improvement.
However, he added, there are weaknesses, such as a loophole allowing journalists to be prosecuted and the ability for institutions to file complaints.
“We would recommend to the government and all politicians to review this,” he said. “The only people who want this law are the people who are afraid of criticism.”
Henry Hwang, legal advisor for Community Legal Education Center, also said the draft article on defamation appears to be an improvement.
“The fines are less severe, there is a statute of limitations and it contains some procedural steps,” Hwang said.
“But it still contains what many consider to be its largest shortcoming: Jail time for defamation.”
Laurent Lemarchand, the French Embassy’s deputy head of mission, said that, at the government’s request, France had provided assistance for the drafting of the code, which “takes into account Cambodian legal tradition.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean and Douglas Gillison)