The country’s existing defamation laws have been abused by government officials and defamation should be removed from the future criminal code to ensure freedom of expression is not threatened further, an international NGO has told donors and the government.
Pro-freedom of expression NGO Article 19 wrote in a statement to the government-donor technical working group on legal and judicial reform that it was particularly worried about provisions in the draft criminal code allowing public officials to file defamation complaints.
“In the absence of an independent judiciary, defamation laws have been repeatedly abused by the authorities to repress independent voices and government critics,” the organization wrote Tuesday.
“Article 19 acknowledges that freedom of expression is not absolute and that exercise of this right is subject to restrictions on specific grounds, including defamation,” the group adds.
“However, like all restrictions, the remedy must be proportionate to the harm done and never go beyond what is necessary in the particular circumstances.”
Under the draft penal code, which the government developed with French assistance, defamation is defined as “any allegation or imputation made in bad faith of an act which harms the honor or reputation of a person or institution,” according to Article L 2262.1.
The penalty is one to five months in prison and a fine of $25 to $50.
Laurent Lemarchand, deputy head of mission at the French embassy, which co-chairs the legal and judicial reform technical working group with the UN Development Program, said the issue has been raised in the working group.
“There is a discussion,” he said. “But I’m not at liberty to comment publicly about the discussions.”
UNDP officials could not be reached for comment.
Y Dan, Justice Ministry secretary of state, said the draft law has already been completed, and that it is now out of the ministry’s hands and up to the Council of Ministers and National Assembly to decide whether to include defamation as a criminal act or not.
“The government can make the decision,” he said.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said they were too busy to comment.