Cambodian paper closes shop, lamenting drift to 'dictatorship'
The forced closure of The Cambodia Daily, a highly regarded broadsheet that helped foster independent journalism in the Southeast Asian country, marks the latest step in an escalating crackdown on freedom of speech.
The English-language daily published its last edition on Monday, saying it had no other option but to close shop after it was given just one month to pay a crippling $6.3 million in back taxes – a figure it disputes.
It did so with a parting shot aimed at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, leading on the arrest on Sunday of opposition leader Kem Sokha with the headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship”.
Sokha, Hun Sen’s main challenger in forthcoming elections, has been accused of treason in a significant escalation of the campaign to silence critics of the government.
The Cambodia Daily, which employs some 30 journalists, half of them foreign, also reported on its own closure after 24 years of fiercely independent reporting.
The paper printed only a few thousand copies a day but had a reputation for breaking news about sensitive topics such as corruption, environmental issues and land rights in a fast-growing nation that is still emerging from decades of conflict.
"We have been a burr in Hun Sen’s side for the entire time that we have been operating," said its American editor-in-chief, Jodie DeJonge.
"This paper takes special pride in writing about some of the toughest issues," she told Reuters as journalists polished their final articles and office workers packed everything they could into cardboard boxes.
‘Press freedom in Cambodia is finished’
Until recently, Cambodia had enjoyed a relatively free press compared with neighbours such as communist Vietnam and army-ruled Thailand.
But independent media, along with opposition politicians and rights activists, have been targeted by a widening crackdown in the run-up to elections next year, in which Hun Sen could face his toughest challenge of more than three decades in power.
Eighteen radio stations were ordered off the air last month and local radio stations have been stopped from leasing time to the US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
The stations were among only a few in the country considered independent, and their closure will have a profound impact on the ability of rural populations - which comprise a majority of the country - to obtain contrarian views.
"When The Cambodia Daily is shut down, it means press freedom in Cambodia is finished," said Chhorn Chansy, a 35-year-old Cambodian who is news editor on the paper.
Hun Sen, 65, has defended the deadline given to the newspaper, saying it had to pay tax the same as any other business.
"When they didn't pay and we asked them to leave the country, they called us a dictatorship," he said.
The Associated Press said it was not clear how the government's tax bill was calculated, noting that the authorities had never visited the paper to conduct an audit and never allowed an appeal.
The pro-government Fresh News website quoted tax authorities as saying that whoever is responsible for The Cambodia Daily would be barred from leaving Cambodia until the money is paid.
Threats to democracy
Hun Sen, who previously berated the paper’s journalists as “servants of foreigners”, has increased his rhetoric against the United States, expelling a US pro-democracy group and on Sunday accusing Washington of conspiring with Kem Sokha.
One of China's closest allies in the region, he has increasingly ignored criticism from Western donors whose budget support is no longer as critical as during the early years of his rule.
He is expected to dismiss the protests that followed Sokha’s arrest on Sunday.
The European Union has called for the opposition leader’s immediate release, pointing out that he is meant to have parliamentary immunity as an elected lawmaker.
"Along with recent actions by the authorities against NGOs and some media organisations, this arrest suggests a further effort to restrict the democratic space in Cambodia," the EU said in a statement.
The US State Department expressed "grave concern" at Sokha's arrest, noting that the charges appeared to be politically motivated. It said in a statement it was also worried about other curbs on media and civil society.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the steps "raise serious questions about the government's ability to organize credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy".
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)