Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that accusing a government leader of being a traitor does not fall under the category of protected speech and that people would no longer be allowed to “insult anybody or any institution.”
The minister’s statements came after the much-criticized conviction in Phnom Penh on Sunday of World Food Program warehouse guard Seng Kunakar, who was found guilty of incitement for sharing leaflets that accused government leaders of being traitors and of ceding land to Vietnam. Mr Kunakar was sentenced to six months in prison.
Mr Kanharith said earlier this week that the conviction was not part of a crackdown on freedom of expression, but “sometimes some people must realize that the era of free lunch is finished.”
Asked to clarify that statement, he wrote in an e-mail yesterday: “Before, using the argument of ‘freedom of expression’ and opposition party’s status, some people could insult anybody or any institution. Not such case now.” Mr Kanharith could not be reached afterward to elaborate.
Earlier yesterday, Mr Kanharith wrote in an e-mail that his ministry had no plans to close the opposition-aligned website KI-Media, which posted the leaflet distributed by Mr Kunakar. Mr Kanharith said sharing the leaflet was different than putting it online.
“First, it’s normal to be criticized, but being accused as traitor or selling land to foreign countries is not criticism, especially in a democratic society where public opinion is crucial to win the election,” Mr Kanharith wrote.
“Secondly, what the KI media said is one thing but distributing the leaflets is another. In USA or many western countries you can’t publicize your support for many ideas, including the denial of Shoah or supporting al-Qaida.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division for Human Rights Watch, said Mr Kanharith’s “argument amounts to an admission that Cambodia is abandoning the right to freedom of expression.”
“This should be a wake-up call for Cambodia’s donors that they must push back against use of the new penal code to criminalize expression of views contrary to the government,” Mr Robertson wrote in an e-mail, referring to the penal code under which Mr Kunakar was charged.
“Whether or not Seng Kunakar was distributing pamphlets or showing his friends a printout from a website is not the issue. He was exercising his right to peaceful expression of political views, and imprisoning him is hardly the sign of a ‘democratic society’ that the minister alludes to-since in a real democracy, the point is the people have the right to hear different views and freely choose among them.”
Western embassies have said they are following Mr Kunakar’s case, which has been criticized by the opposition SRP and local rights groups, who have cited the speed of his conviction and the charge itself. Court officials have said the trial was conducted properly.
Mr Kunakar was convicted Sunday morning after being arrested Friday at the WFP warehouse, which is across the street from a police station. He confessed to sharing leaflets with co-workers, but denied inciting anyone to commit a crime. The leaflet accuses Prime Minister Hun Sen and other government leaders of ceding land to Vietnam, but does not explicitly call for violence.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam, often criticized by the opposition, was a “very, very sensitive issue.”
“History has shown that the government will crack down on anything relating to Cambodia and Vietnam,” Mr Virak said, citing the recent conviction of Leang Sokchoeun for distributing leaflets similar to those shared by Mr Kunakar.
Mr Sokchoeun, an employee of local rights group Licadho, was sentenced on Aug 30 to two years in prison after being found guilty of disinformation in Takeo province. Rights groups said at the time there were numerous flaws in the trial.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)