Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's latest move to curb freedom of expression is aimed at the country's lawyers, who have been championing land rights and criticizing courts used to imprison or intimidate government critics, according to legal experts and rights groups.
In a Jan. 31 directive made public last Friday, Hun Sen's government prohibited lawyers from giving media interviews without the permission of the Cambodian Bar Association, the umbrella body of the legal profession.
The association, believed to be controlled by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), also sent a “letter of warning” on the same date to lawyers, asking them not to disseminate information related to their profession "via any media whatsoever without the authorization of the Bar.”
The directive would effectively prevent lawyers from making any statement through the print media as well as broadcast media without the bar’s approval, especially ahead of key national elections in July.
"It is important for Cambodians in any profession to speak freely without fear—lawyers even more so, because lawyers are defending other people’s rights to speak freely and without fear," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told RFA's Khmer Service.
"And so if the lawyers are shut up, their clients will be shut up, because often it’s only the lawyers who can speak for their clients, because many people, of course, don’t know their legal rights or don’t understand the complications in the law," he explained.
"So that’s a very basic principle, and that’s why we see in every society so many lawyers on TV and radio giving their opinions about things."
Adams said the new ban demonstrates the government’s aim to control the media and the legal profession but more broadly makes a "mockery of free speech in a democratic society,” he said.
Donors asked to act
Human Rights Watch asked international donors, including the United States and the European Union, to "quickly and publicly" press the Cambodian government to reverse its latest move against freedom of expression.
Many lawyers have become outspoken critics of the government and courts, which are frequently used to imprison or intimidate critics, such as exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and jailed independent radio station owner Mam Sonando.
“Donor countries have spent a lot of time and money trying to develop an independent and professional legal profession, which had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years,” Adams said, referring to the brutal group's rule from 1975 to 1979.
“Particularly in an election year, donors need to speak out loud and clear about this attack on the independence of lawyers and free speech. They would never tolerate this kind of restriction in their own countries, and shouldn’t accept it in Cambodia, either.”
The new rules are likely to discourage lawyers, especially those defending human rights, from using the media to assert the legal rights of groups such as the estimated 700,000 Cambodians who have been adversely affected by land-grabbing, Human Rights Watch said.
The Jan. 31 instruction notes that many radio and television stations have invited lawyers to appear on their programs to interpret and explain the law to the public, and to comment on government policies for legal and judicial reform.
The restrictions will rob Cambodians of their legal rights and tarnish the professional integrity of the legal profession, local lawyers said.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun, who is a lawyer, said Monday that a 1995 provision in the Cambodian Bar Association's Code of Ethics being used to prevent lawyers from speaking up on issues is outdated.
Article 15 says "all public or media activities by the lawyer in his or her capacity [as a lawyer] are prohibited unless in strict conformity with professional obligations." It further says that "such activities require the greatest prudence" and the association president "must be informed and, unless impossible, consulted prior to the activities."
It is "out of date," Sok Sam Oeun said. In 1995, there were only 70 lawyers in Cambodia while their number has now ballooned more than 10 times to about 800 lawyers across country, he said.
“The previous Bar president didn’t implement the article because he thought it was hard to implement. This is not a law, this is just a code of conduct,” he said.
Move to scrap provision
Another prominent lawyer Chhoung Chou Ngy, who is also a Bar council member, said he will propose to the association to scrap Article 15, saying lawyers shouldn’t need to seek permission for any interviews with the media.
“Lawyers have our own views and we can talk. But if we don’t adhere to the rules, then the Bar can summon us for possible punishment,” he said.
The association's spokesman, Yim Sary, said the new instruction to lawyers is aimed at strengthening discipline.
“Some lawyers don't make adequate preparations for the interview and sometimes it is hard for the listeners to understand and sometimes what they say can affect the law. Without such preparations, the public may think we don’t know the law," Yim Sary said.
The Cambodian Bar Association has been under de facto CPP control since 2004, when the party engineered an election of the bar president by overturning the victory of an independent candidate and installing a CPP-approved figure in his place, Human Rights Watch said.
The association's current president, Bun Hon, is a former CPP appointee as undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry who has spoken out in favor of Hun Sen’s political leadership, Human Rights Watch said.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An strongly backed Bun Hon’s election as president of the bar association and presided at his installation ceremony in November 2012, it said.
Bun Hon reportedly continues to serve as a member of the Council of Jurists at the Council of Ministers, which reports to Sok An and Hun Sen.
Reported by Keo Nimol and Sum Sok Ry for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Richard Finney.