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Freedom of Expression Comes With Responsibilities, Lawyers Say

Sok Sam Oeun, an independent lawyer and Kim Santepheap, spokesman of the Ministry of Justice in VOA studio in Phnom Penh on Wednesday May 25, 2016. (Lim Sothy/VOA Khmer)

Hello VOA radio listeners said they had a hard time understanding the difference between what constitutes an individual’s right to free expression and defamation.

Cambodians should be free to express themselves, but that freedom of expression must not infringe upon others’ rights, lawyers told VOA Khmer on Wednesday.

Under the constitution, Cambodians are guaranteed freedoms of expression, media and assembly, but these rights cannot affect the rights of others, “affect the traditions of society” or be performed in violation of the law.

But rights groups argue that those freedoms are not guaranteed in practice.

Over the past several months the courts have issued subpoenas against opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who are accused of defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and young activist Thy Sovantha, respectively.

More recently, the Cambodian People’s Party filed a defamation suit against political analyst Ou Virak, who allegedly suggested that the case against Sokha was politically motivated.

Listeners who called in to the Hello VOA radio program this Wednesday said they had a hard time understanding the difference between what constitutes an individual’s right to free expression and defamation.

Sok Sam Oeun, an independent lawyer, said that “if you use your freedom to violate another person's freedom and rights, you will have to face legal action that falls under the responsibility to protect of the state.”

“Couples or lovers talking to each other in their private room cannot commit public defamation. Someone who sneakily records and leaks the conversation should be the one to be punished, not the couple or the lovers,” he added in an apparent reference to the case against Sokha.

Kim Santepheap, Ministry of Justice spokesman, said Cambodian rules were in-line with international norms.

However, one listener, Sameth, questioned why some protesters received protection while others were broken up by police.

Srey Leap, a resident of Prey Veng province, said pro-government protests often received protection from the authorities while workers’ demonstrations were often crushed.

Santepheap, however, played down the callers’ concerns, saying that “the right to demonstrate and strike are guaranteed in the constitution and laws. One undeniable obligation of the people is to respect the constitution and laws. Everyone has equal rights in front of the law.”

He added that “people have a right to express opinions but do not have the right to close down public roads.”

Sam Oeun admitted that the law governing demonstrations used vague language and required protest organizers to obtain permission from the authorities, which limits the ability of protesters to exercise their rights.

“The government and the ruling party have made a lot of progress because of criticism. If there is no criticism, there will be no change,” he added.

Santepheap stressed that “freedom of expression and criticisms are not crimes, except those that are beyond the legal boundary. The government accepts [constructive] criticism.”