Emergency Law Could Restrict Movement, Dissemination of Fear-Inducing Information

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People walk near Independence Monument in Phnom Penh on March 26, 2020. (Matt Surrusco/VOD)
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UPDATED 8:58 p.m. — A widely circulated document purported to be a draft of the government’s state of emergency legislation would allow the government to restrict citizens’ movements, and punish them with up to 10 years in jail if they obstruct emergency measures and cause public disorder.

The document, listing 11 articles over five pages, was posted to several Facebook pages on Tuesday night, including education platform Niteakosal. Voice of America reported that Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin had confirmed the draft’s authenticity, but Malin declined to comment on the document on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Monday that the state of emergency law, which was motivated by the Covid-19 pandemic that has seen more than 860,000 infections globally, would be sent to the Council of Ministers on Friday. At that time, the premier warned that he would have to restrict civil rights if a state of emergency is declared, but that he “doesn’t want to use this law.”

The circulated document says the law can apply during times of war, foreign invasion, public health threats, disasters and “serious chaos to the nation and public order.” The prime minister, king and presidents of the National Assembly and Senate must agree to invoke a state of emergency, as stipulated in the Constitution.

In a state of emergency, the government would be able to ban citizens from traveling and gathering, according to the document. The document also allows the government to monitor access to information through all forms of telecommunications, as well as restrict and ban people from spreading information that it deems capable of causing “fear to the public, chaos, damage to national security or misunderstandings about the state of emergency.”

Authorities have already begun targeting, arresting and educating individuals for posting “fake news” about the Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia, arresting several CNRP activists in the process.

The document says the government would be able to instate a state of emergency for a limited or unlimited time. In the latter case, it would be ended by a royal decree.

Punishments range from one month to a year in jail for intentionally disregarding emergency measures, and can be as high as 10 years for obstructing an emergency response in a manner that leads to chaos or disruption in public order, the document says. Fines for individuals range from 100,000 riel to 5 million riel ($25 to $1,250), according to the document.

“People and civil society seem to have nothing to worry about because this law serves to benefit the whole society,” Malin, the Justice Ministry spokesman, said in a voice message. “The important thing is that we fulfill and follow the government’s measures for our own benefit, safety and stability and for the benefit of the general public and the whole society. It is nothing to worry about, and it is not strange for Cambodia.”

As of Wednesday morning, the Health Ministry had confirmed 109 cases of the novel strain of coronavirus, with 25 of the patients having recovered so far. Hun Sen said on Monday that he did not think the outbreak was severe enough to declare an emergency.

Ny Sokha, investigations bureau chief for Adhoc, said he was not against the idea of a state of emergency law in order to maintain health and safety if the coronavirus outbreak worsens in Cambodia.

However, he cautioned the government against implementing the law broadly and without proper dissemination. He was concerned that a state of emergency could come into effect with some people unaware of newly imposed restrictions, and “these people would suffer from extreme legal punishment.”

Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson strongly criticized the articles in the circulated document, saying that if they were passed into law, they would “completely extinguish any remaining civil and political liberties.” Robertson said the government had mismanaged Cambodia’s public health response in order to take advantage of the situation politically, and this draft law was another example.

“What’s truly frightening is this: looking at the powers in the decree that extend absolute control over all aspects of society, economy and politics, it’s fair to say such dictatorial authority has not been seen in Cambodia since the days of Pol Pot.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Chin Malin commented he did not know the source of the circulated document. It also miscalculated the dollar value of potential fines.

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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