Cambodia’s recently introduced Draft Law on Access to Information, which could strike a blow to systemic graft in the country, “has numerous shortcomings” and should be amended to include key recommendations that would bring it in line with international standards, according to rights groups.
The most recently publicly available version of the draft law, dated Aug. 20, 2019, prompted British rights group and freedom of expression advocate ARTICLE 19 to send a list of recommendations to Cambodia’s Ministry of Information in late October amid concerns over its “many ambiguous provisions and unclear definitions,” as well as its lack of “key components of exemplary access to information legislation.”
On Wednesday, ARTICLE 19 and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a joint statement urging authorities to incorporate the recommendations, which the government never responded to, saying their assessment of the proposed legislation contrasts with a recent statement by the Ministry of Information that it aligned with international standards and Cambodia’s constitution.
“The government’s commitment to adopting access to information legislation is a step in the right direction,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme, adding that “a strong law could open up channels for combatting corruption, promoting accountability, and enabling public participation in official decision-making processes.”
“However, the government has yet to incorporate key recommendations, despite a lengthy consultation process.”
In their assessment, ARTICLE 19 and HRW found the draft law to include a narrow and ambiguous definition of information subject to disclosure, lack an explicit reference that the law applies to judicial and legislative bodies or private bodies using public funds, and make no mention of a presumption of full disclosure as a basic principle.
The groups also cited unnecessary formalities for request procedures, overly broad categories of exceptions to disclosure by public authorities, a failure to define the term “public interest,” a failure to create an oversight body to enforce the law, and multiple provisions they said threaten the right to freedom of expression.
The right to information—which guarantees individuals, groups and companies the right to obtain information from public bodies—is protected in several treaties to which Cambodia is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Cambodia’s Ministry of Information, in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), formed a working group in 2015 that has repeatedly engaged with Cambodian civil society organizations to develop comprehensive access to information legislation, ARTICLE 19 and HRW said.
But four years later, many of those organizations have expressed concerns that key recommendations have not been incorporated into successive drafts of the bill.
Additionally, amid a crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the media in the lead up to Cambodia’s July 2018 general election, the government adopted a series of repressive laws and amendments to existing laws that ARTICLE 19 and HRW said have undermined the right to freedom of expression and which have continued more than a year after the ballot.
“The access to information bill has taken more than four years to draft and will soon be handed to what is now a single party-controlled National Assembly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“UNESCO, foreign governments, and donors should insist that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government revises the draft law to bring it into line with international standards.”
In response to ARTICLE 19 and HRW, Cambodian Ministry of Information spokesperson Meas Sophoan told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the draft law is no longer up for modification.
He said the draft law “already includes recommendations and feedback” from UNESCO, NGOs and the media, has passed through inter-ministerial debate, and will soon be sent to the Ministry of Justice before it is approved by the Council of Ministers and turned over to the National Assembly—Cambodia’s rubber stamp parliament controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The Ministry of Information will no longer amend the content of the draft law,” he said.
“They have the right to express their opinion, but we have already held many discussions and agreed on how it is written.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.