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Government accused of gagging lawyers

Fresh outcry over freedom of speech

Steve Finch, Bangkok

February 12, 2013

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Lawyers and rights groups have accused authorities of trying to silence legal professionals following an order restricting lawyers from commenting in the media.

Information Minister Khieu Kannarith issued a statement on Friday telling all journalists that interviews with lawyers must gain prior approval by the president of the Bar Association, Bun Hon, who is accused of overt support for the ruling party.

Both the Bar Association and the government have said the order is a response to recent public comments by a Cambodian lawyer in an ongoing commercial dispute between mobile phone companies Huawei and Mfone.

“We have a ban for all lawyers not to talk with the media because some lawyers recently provided interviews with some media and they don’t respect professionalism,” Bar Association spokesman Yim Sary was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily on Tuesday.

But the director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, Sok Sam Ouen, said it marked the latest government effort to silence lawyers, following a series of controversial human rights and freedom of speech cases.

The recent order restricting interviews, which has been part of the Bar Association’s code of ethics since its founding in 1995, has never previously been enforced.

When it was written, Cambodia had fewer than 100 lawyers. Now it has about 1,000 meaning the order is impractical, said Sok Sam Ouen.

“I would like to recommend the Cambodian Bar Association review this – it is out of date,” he said.

On October 1, Sok Sam Ouen’s client Mam Sonando, a local radio presenter, was found guilty of insurrection and sentenced to 20 years in prison, prompting an outcry inside and outside Cambodia.

At the end of the same month, the Bar Association issued a rule stating that any lawyer commenting on a court decision would be in contempt of court.

The latest order on media interview restrictions marks the latest effort by authorities to clamp down on critics of Cambodia’s compromised court system, said Sok Sam Ouen.

“In Cambodia, the process of the legal system is still in progress. We need to debate and discuss these things – if the client agrees,” he said.

Lor Chunthy, a lawyer at Legal Aid Cambodia, also criticized the new order saying it was unconstitutional and a further violation of free speech, according to a local press report.

In a statement issued on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Cambodian government of using this latest measure to clamp down on dissent ahead of a general election at the end of July.

“This ban dramatically 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,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. 

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