Sale of Cambodian newspaper sparks press freedom concerns

A free press has always been an integral institutional safeguard to any self-professed democracy in the world. In Cambodia, things are slightly different. Last September saw the closure of The Cambodia Daily – an independent newspaper – after it was slapped with a disputed US$6.3 million tax bill.

Now, the last bastion of free press in the country, The Phnom Penh Post, is facing a crisis as its Editor-In-Chief, Kay Kimsong was sacked over an article written about the sale of the newspaper to a Malaysian businessman. The past 48 hours has seen journalists of the esteemed bilingual (English and Khmer) paper walk out in support of Kimsong.

Like The Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post also faced a dispute involving a reported US$3.9 million tax bill from the government but according to its former owner, Bill Clough, it was resolved prior to the sale.

Between journalism and business

Trouble brewed when writers, Brendan O’Byrne and Ananth Baliga published a piece detailing the sale of The Phnom Penh Post to Malaysian businessman, Sivakumar S Ganapathy, who is also the owner of Asia PR, a public relations firm. The article shed light on questionable links between Ganapathy and the current Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen who has maintained an iron-fisted rule over the nation for nearly 33 years.

Representatives of the new owners ordered the removal of the article, but were faced with recalcitrance from senior editorial staff. Following the insubordination, Kimsong was removed from his position with immediate effect for allowing the publication of the article.

In a memo sent to employers, the owner expressed his disappointment over the story and slammed it as “disgraceful” and an “insult to the independence claim of the newspaper,” bordering on “internal sabotage.” He also addressed the claimed suspicious links between him and the Hun Sen regime as “untrue and cannot be concluded based on what took place between Asia PR and the client more than 25 years ago.”

The memo also mentioned the removal of both authors of the article, who had concurrently announced their resignations on Twitter.

Reacting to Kimsong's sacking, Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles condemned the action for ruining the reputation of an esteemed Cambodian publication.

"The Phnom Penh Post is legendary for its reporting, impartiality, and pursuit of truth. The sale is a complete disaster and has already ruined the paper’s reputation given resignations and firings, especially the sacking of the Editor-in-Chief whose only mistake was to refuse to take down a story that told the truth," he said in an email reply.

"There is no way back for an independent Cambodian press after this. Game over. To rebuild what has been lost would require another United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)," he added.

Erin Handley, now a former reporter and sub-editor of The Phnom Penh Post, walked The ASEAN Post through the debacle as it took place.

“At first, I was defiant when they demanded we take down the article, but when our senior editorial staff resigned and our editor-in-chief was fired, my feelings turned to anger, confusion and dismay,” she said in an email reply.

“We then kicked into reporter mode and started documenting what was happening inside the office.”

In a statement, 23 current and former staff of The Phnom Penh Post condemned their owner’s demands and reiterated their position that the article was written in line with the 25-year-old newspaper’s ideals of transparency and integrity.

Handley told The ASEAN Post that she felt the management was taken aback by the spate of resignations which left the newspaper embattled, severely crippling its operations. All foreign news reporters and editors have resigned.

“They asked us if we knew the consequences – that we were effectively contributing to the death of the English language daily. This weighs on us heavily,” she added.

“However, I think they failed to see that it was them jeopardising our editorial independence that had set off this chain of events, and that mass resignations were inevitable.”

Implications to Cambodian democracy

Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen’s longstanding rule of the Southeast Asian state has seen democratic institutions, including the free press, crumble during his tenure. He remains unfazed by international criticism of his conduct as he continues to purge dissent to his leadership ahead of general elections later this year.

Over the course of eight months, Hun Sen’s regime has jailed an influential opposition leader, shut down a prominent English daily and several radio stations, dissolved the main opposition party, threatened to jail opposition lawmakers and arrested foreign journalists on trumped-up charges of espionage.

The country’s free press stands as one of the remaining bulwarks against Hun Sen’s political onslaught, but is slowly being chipped away, with The Phnom Penh Post’s fate surely acting to speed up this process.

According to Ear who is also a Cambodian policy analyst, with the sale of the Post, press freedom in the country which was already on its last leg is now officially dead. Remaining local dailies in the country act as mere mouthpieces to Hun Sen's government.

"Local news is so important.It's trusted because it isn't just "the media." Local media used to be the Daily, and until now the Post. Now when one blurts out fake news, it's easier to pin the blame on the amorphous media. It's much harder to attack your local newspaper, the one you've trusted for 26 years," Ear explained.

The balance in the Cambodian political landscape has shifted severely over the past few months. This time last year, the opposition party was on the verge of rejoicing over their victory in local commune elections – a sign that they had made inroads with the electorate, heralding the fall of Hun Sen’s regime. Leading the forefront of impartial journalism in the country were its two foremost news media organisations, the Phnom Penh Post and The Cambodia Daily.

Now, all that Cambodians have is a muted opposition to Hun Sen’s reins on political power. With the cards stacked in his favour, his continued rule is imminent and there is seemingly very little Cambodians can do to change this.