In an abrupt reversal of policy, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Tuesday that he supports decriminalizing defamation in Cambodia.
“I think we should change defamation from a criminal case to a civil case,” Hun Sen said at a graduation ceremony in Kandal province. “The offense is still an offense, but not a criminal case, only a civil case …compensation is the solution for the victims.”
But Hun Sen also called for using the education system to help the public understand that freedom of expression is limited and expression should not harm others.
In recent months, criminal lawsuits have been lodged on behalf of the prime minister against various rights activists, and on Dec 22 he won a defamation case against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, which saw him sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. The activists were released from prison last month and Sam Rainsy has since been pardoned and returned to the country. A new draft law, drafted with French assistance, calls for fines of between $20 and $50 and between one month and five months in jail for defamation.
Sam Rainsy welcomed Hun Sen’s announcement.
“This will eliminate concern from people’s heads,” he said. “This is a motivation for people to talk.”
The Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia, whose chairman Kem Sokha was one of those jailed for alleged defamation, welcomed Hun Sen’s announcement but criticized the proposed draft law.
“This draft law is very harmful to freedom of expression in Cambodia because it continues to criminalize defamation,” Kem Sokha, who is also President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an AFEC statement.
He added that government authorities and public figures should be prohibited from filing defamation complaints.
Hun Sen said that because of an expression-of-regret letter sent Monday by Say Bory, an advisor to retired King Norodom Sihanouk, he would ask the courts not to arrest Say Bory. Say Bory was accused of defaming the prime minister by claiming a border treaty he signed with Vietnam had given up Cambodian territory.