Gag Order on Lawyers Sparked by Comments in Mfone Case

A controversial order instructing lawyers to consult the Cam­bodian Bar Association before making public statements was triggered by comments made by an attorney involved in the high-profile legal battle involving mo­bile operator Mfone, a spokes­man confirmed on Monday.

Kuoy Thunna—who is representing Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei in its battle to recover more than $65 million in unpaid bills from the bankrupt Mfone—was told in a letter dated January 31—also posted on the Bar Association’s website—to cease speaking to the media.

The letter said Mr. Thunna had breached Article 15 of the Law­yer’s Code of Ethics, which stipulates that lawyers should not give false information or engage in self-promotion. This article has never before been applied to stop a lawyer from talking to the media.

On the same day, the Infor­mation Ministry, at the request of the Bar Association, issued a statement telling journalists to go through the association when seeking comment from lawyers.

Bar Association spokesman Yim Sary reiterated on Monday that all lawyers should get ap­proval before speaking with the media, but said the statements put out about the rule were is­sued specifically as a result of Mr. Thunna talking to reporters.

“The ban happened after Mr. Kuoy Thunna did wrong and the Bar Association doesn’t want other lawyers to follow him,” Mr. Sary said.

“We have a ban for all lawyers not to talk with the media [before approval] because some lawyers recently provided interviews with some media and they don’t re­spect professionalism,” he added.

The only court proceedings in Mr. Thunna’s casebook at the mo­ment are the injunction granted against Mfone after the complaint from Huawei, and another court injunction against Mfone, granted in October, relating to another $3.73 million owed to Norway’s Eltek.

In January, Mfone agreed to transfer its roughly 400,000 subscribers to MobiTel, the telecommunications operator owned by well-known businessman Kith Meng.

During both injunctions against Mfone, Mr. Thunna spoke to re­port­ers about the details of the cas­es. And in comments published the day before the Bar As­socia­tion’s letter, Mr. Thunna told a repor­ter that the transfer of subscribers was a breach of the in­junction against Mfone.

“Mfone is using tricks to avoid paying my clients,” he was quoted as saying.

A high-profile lawyer, Mr. Thun­na has previously represented controversial media personality Soy Sopheap and Taiwanese com­pany Hong Tung Resource, which was involved in a legal dispute with Nim Heng Group—a company owned by the wife of Cam­bodian Armed Forces Gener­al Nim Meng —over a joint copper mining venture in Siem Reap province. Mr. Thunna declined to comment.

Some legal experts have de­nounced the Bar’s recent edict, saying it was in violation of the freedom of speech and unconstitutional.

Lor Chunthy, a lawyer at Legal Aid Cambodia, said limiting law­yers’ public comments could re­duce people’s understanding of the judicial system.

“It would be a problem if it affects what is published and broadcast because, how can people understand about the law if all lawyers are banned to talk?” he said.

However, Matthew Rendall, a partner at legal adviser Sciaroni & Associates, said that it was not un­usual in other countries for law­yers to be restricted in what they can say publicly about ongoing cases, but that courts usually en­forced this case-by-case.

“Given that the Huawei case is a court proceeding, it may be that they shouldn’t be talking,” he said.

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