UN Removed From Criminal Code Debate

UN representatives were es­corted out of the viewing gal­lery and the pressroom’s live television feed was interrupted as the National Assem­bly approved key articles concerning freedom of expression in Cambodia’s new penal code yesterday.

A total of 59 articles were passed without amendment by affirmative votes from 82 of 103 lawmakers during yesterday’s session, marking the approval of sections on defamation, insult, discrimination and invasion of privacy, among other issues.

The live television feed in the Assembly pressroom cut out twice, resulting in almost two hours of dead air during debate on sections of the code that have drawn some of the most pointed criticism from ob­servers and the political opposition. Officers for the Assembly blamed the outages on “technical problems,” but technicians were no­where to be seen during the outages.

Later in the day, National As­sem­­bly Vice President Nguon Nhel said by telephone that the outages were related to on-going issues with aging equipment.

“This was not the first time—the problem has happened many times,” he said, adding that the Assembly will request funds for repairing the broadcast equipment in its 2010 budget.

“This [technical problem] was not done intentionally to make trouble,” Mr Nhel insisted.

He added that he had no know­ledge of the expulsion of two representatives from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who were led out of the public gallery by security guards at the beginning of the mor­ning’s proceedings.

“In the National Assembly regulations, debates are public,” Mr Nhel said. “But for internal security reasons, visitors must be approved by the National Assembly.”

Christophe Peschoux, country representative for OHCHR, said yesterday by telephone that ob­servers from his office had been allowed to attend the previous three days of debate on the code, even though they don’t have permanent passes.

“Clearly, there is no intention to have this debate with public attendance,” he said. “The key issue here is one of transparency.”

Mr Peschoux pointed out that the new code will define criminal law on all matters for Cam­bodia. “I think a law of this proportion should be debated in a public and constructive atmosphere…. It’s not a marginal piece of legislation.”

The OHCHR has presented comments on the code to lawmakers, he said, adding, “We are a bit concerned that there doesn’t seem to be real debate…. The debate seems to be purely formal. There seems to be no room for amending the text.”

Indeed, Cambodian Defen­ders Project Director Sok Sam Oeun, who has also submitted comments on the code, said by telephone that public access to the debate is much less of a concern than the quality of the debate itself.

“Who is debating?” he asked. “There is no debate. The code goes to the National Assembly, and the ruling party members, they don’t want to debate, they only want to support the draft.”

Ninety of the Assembly’s 123 lawmakers are from the ruling CPP.

By the close of yesterday’s session, all 319 of the code’s 672 articles addressed so far have been approved without amendment.

The sections of the code discussed yesterday had been highly anticipated after a recent series of defamation and disinformation court cases against journalists and government critics.

In a departure from the 1992 UNTAC code under which many of the recent cases were tried, defamation by members of the media can no longer be considered a criminal offense under the new draft code, but instead must be covered by Cambodia’s press law.

However, anyone other than a journalist found guilty of defamation could be fined between $25 and $2,500. The new code defines public defamation as, “all exaggerated declarations, or those that intentionally put the blame for any actions, which affect the dignity or reputation of a person or an institution.”

The code also includes the criminal offense of public insult, which covers, “any insulting expression, any scorning term or any other verbal abuses.”

These sections of the code have drawn some of the harshest comments from critics, who have complained that the definitions of defamation and insult are too broad, and that the code does not include truth as a defense against either charge.

During the segment of yesterday’s debate that was broadcast for journalists, SRP lawmakers raised recent criticisms made by Surya Subedi, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia.

In an address to the UN Hu­man Rights Council last week, Mr Sub­edi said he was concerned by the state of freedom of expression in Cambodia, and added that he hoped defamation would be re­moved entirely from the new criminal code.

When SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann mentioned Mr Subedi’s speech, he was shot down by members of the ruling CPP.

Lawmaker Ai Khan said that the SRP is just afraid the new code will take away its freedom to insult the government.

“I do not know who Subedi is…. Mr [Subedi] does not understand about the words criticizing, scorning and defaming,” Mr Khan said. “I just want to notify His Excellency Yim Sovann: Do not raise a foreigner’s ideas for discussion in here.”

The CPP lawmaker went on to threaten Mr Sovann with a defamation lawsuit if he continued to make comments about the code or the ruling party. “If you keep on insulting the National Assembly, we will file a complaint,” Mr Khan said.

Mr Sovann said by telephone after yesterday’s session that during the television blackout he had made requests for amendments to the code, “especially on some articles relevant to defamation, insult, incitement.”

He added that, “If the law is approved like this with no amendments, we think that it is an obstacle to freedom of speech. We think that this is an obstacle to the fair development of the country.”

When asked about the television blackout, Mr Sovann questioned the excuse of technical problems. “I doubt why it would happen during the debate on these articles.”

Hy Sophea, secretary of state for the Justice Ministry and government representative to the National Assembly, dismissed all opposition requests to clarify the meaning of defamation, or remove it from the code entirely.

“If we take the offense of defamation out, it means that we do not denounce scorning actions, we do not deny acts of defamation in society, so instead we allow people to scorn each other,” he said.

Debate on the penal code is scheduled to continue in the National Assembly today.


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