A coalition of NGOs will meet today to address “dangerous” limitations to freedom of expression in Cambodia’s new penal code, especially the use of incitement charges to punish government critics.
To convict someone of incitement under the new penal code requires only a finding that he or she acted to cause “turmoil in society”—a vague phrase that judges can interpret broadly.
“It is hard to disprove incitement,” said Sok Sam Oeun, director of the free legal aid group Cambodia Defenders Project. “Judges must interpret the law, but with incitement, we have no way to know how they will interpret it.”
Just eight days after the penal code came into effect in December, an employee of the UN’s World Food Program was convicted of incitement and jailed for six months for distributing leaflets that criticized government figures.
And in two high-profile cases this year, the Court of Appeal changed charges from disinformation to incitement when handing down guilty verdicts, without giving defendants an opportunity to answer the new “catch-all” charge.
“The incitement charge is very dangerous for the country,” said Mr Sam Oeun, who was defense attorney for Moeung Sonn, who was charged over comments concerning a lighting project at Angkor Wat.
Mr Sonn appealed his disinformation charge, but when the verdict in his appeal was handed down in May, the Court of Appeal changed the charge to incitement.
Similarly, the Court of Appeal changed the charge against Licadho employee Leang Sokchouen—who was also accused of handing out anti-government leaflets—from disinformation to incitement when handing down its guilty verdict earlier this month.
Reading from that decision, Presiding Judge Pol Sam Oeun justified the change because “the acts really caused chaos in public society.”
“This is a huge open door for the government to charge its critics,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant at Licadho. “When we saw the new law, it was easily predictable how it would be used.”