Cambodia: Government abolishes jail time for criminal defamation

New York, May 30, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes Cambodia’s abolition of prison as punishment for libel, but urges Prime Minister Hun Sen to decriminalize defamation completely.

On May 26, Cambodia’s lower house of parliament passed legislation eliminating penalties of eight days to one year in prison for defamation convictions. The amendments are expected to be passed into law later this month after the Senate endorses them. However, criminal defamation remains punishable by fines of 1 million to 10 million riel (US$245 to US$2,450).

“The abolition of jail time is a welcome first step on the road to total decriminalization of defamation,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “Defamation cases should be heard in civil, not criminal courts. We therefore urge Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that journalists are fully protected in Cambodia by scrapping these remaining criminal laws.”

Civil defamation suits are allowed under Cambodia’s Press Law.

Press freedom has recently come under fire in Cambodia. Hun Sen imprisoned three journalists last year—Mom Sonando, Kem Sokha, and Pa Guon Tieng—all of whom were held without trial on criminal defamation charges for critical reporting on a controversial border demarcation treaty.

Under heavy pressure from foreign donors and press-freedom advocacy groups, Hun Sen released all three journalists on bail January 18, and later announced his intention to drop the charges. But a criminal court later refused to drop the cases saying that it had already begun investigations.

Freedom of the press and freedom of publication are guaranteed by Articles 31 and 41 of Cambodia’s constitution. However, the 1995 Press Law’s broad definition of “national security and political stability” has in the past been used by Cambodian authorities as a legal pretext to harass and imprison journalists.