Nat’l Archive Law Approved, Doubts Raised

With rare speed and efficiency, the National Assembly on Wed­nes­day passed a law establishing a na­tional archive, but questions re­mained about why the law imposes penalties on officials who might illegally release information but contains no sanction on those who refuse to release information.

The measure passed with 86 of the 91 parliamentarians present voting in favor of the law, while sup­porters of the law accused critics of dragging their feet.

Opposition lawmaker Yim So­vann raised the issue of penalties for officials who refuse to release go­v­ernment information, suggesting it was unfair that they go un­punished. He also suggested the government might use the law to scapegoat officials who manage the archive if sensitive information is leaked to the public.

According to the law, those caught stealing, damaging or illegally releasing information from the archive can be jailed for six months to 30 years and fined $500 to $12,500. No penalty is mention­ed for those who refuse to re­lease information.

CPP lawmaker Pen Panha also suggested the law needed some changes, pushing for it to distinguish between those who release sensitive information accidentally and those who do so on purpose. According to the law, he said, the punishment is the same in both cases.

But Funcinpec parliamentarian Khieu San, a supporter of the law, accused the law’s critics of slowing the legislative process.

“Don’t try to find a long pot to cook a long eel,” he said, using a Khmer expression to warn against worrying too much about details.

Chea Sophorn, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, also defended the law, saying the courts could settle any ambiguities or omissions in its wording.

But Yim Sovann suggested that was not a suitable solution.

“They are corrupt,” he retorted, referring to the courts.

Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay also suggested that further debate was useless, but for different reasons.

“They debate, talk about the grammar of the law, but never change its substance,” he complained of the Assembly.

Heav Veasna, managing director of the Center for Social Development, repeated criticisms that the law could allow information to be censored under the rubric of “national security.”

“This law is not well-defined,” he said. “The meaning of ‘national security’ must be made clear.”

Heav Veasna also said officials who illegally refuse to divulge information should be punished. “The law should mention penalties for officials who refuse to release information or demand money [for releasing it].”

He added that the government should also pass the Freedom of Information Act as quickly as possible, which has been under consideration for some time and which donor countries have lobbied for.

“The archive law should go together with the Freedom of Information Act,” Heav Veasna said, explaining that the archive law in theory covers only government records while the other law has a wider scope including, for example, business contracts.

Dianne Cullinane, an anti-corruption adviser at Pact Cambodia, worried the national archive law could circumvent the Freedom of Information Act, although she said she had not yet seen a copy of the archive law.

 

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