Cambodia’s fragile democracy rocked by newspaper closure and ‘treason’ arrest

Cambodia's fragile democracy rocked by newspaper closure and ‘treason' arrest

The final issue of The Cambodia Daily is sold at a newsstand, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.

(AP/Heng Sinith)
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The headline was in large, white font and splashed across the width of the front page. Descent Into Outright Dictatorship it said boldly, accompanied by a photograph depicting the night-time arrest of Cambodia’s opposition leader, Kem Sokha.

It was a final parting shot by The Cambodia Daily; an independent, English-language newspaper that went to print for the last time last Sunday night after a bitterly fought battle over a US$6.3-million tax bill left it with no other choice but to do so.

In its dying hours, however, the staff stayed true to the paper’s defiant slogan: to tell “all the news, without fear or favour.”

Over the course of its 24-year life, The Cambodia Daily—which employed Cambodian and foreign staff—routinely held government figures’ feet to the fire; it amplified the voices of the poor and disenfranchised and its reporters chased dangerous stories on topics such as illegal logging and corruption, often at great risk to themselves.

The Cambodia Daily was founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993, and it was formally sold to his daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele in April 2017. That it ultimately decided to stop the presses stems from an August tax bill meted out by the tax department, which coincided with the leaking of a statement to a government-friendly website called Fresh News. It accused the newspaper of failing to pay VAT and ordered it to pay alleged back-taxes of $6.3 million or shut down.

In response, management at The Cambodia Daily sought to negotiate the finer points of how the department managed to reach what appeared to be an astronomical sum, given that the paper had been losing money for nearly a decade. The taxation department would not be moved.

“The Daily would be published far into the future if the government was not absolutely determined to close [it],” editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge said in an interview with Equal Times on Friday, ahead of the paper’s closure.

She said the Daily had been “singled out for a different type of compliance, because you’re supposed to get… an opportunity to negotiate; pay over time, receive due process; you’d have the ability to appeal.”

A statement published by the paper on Saturday announcing its closure said that while “there may well be a legitimate dispute between the tax department and the owners of the Daily over when tax became collectable and in what amount,” the paper had not been afforded the chance to counter the allegations.

“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” the statement said. “And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press.”

Media crackdown

The loss of The Cambodia Daily comes on the heels of the government-ordered shutdown of 18 radio stations and the US-funded National Democratic Institute last month.

The paper’s swan song also coincided with the overnight arrest of Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. According to his daughter, he is being held in the CC3 prison; a remote border outpost several hours from the capital of Phnom Penh.

Sokha was charged with committing an act of treason after a video of him talking with supporters in Australia was published online. Officials said it shows he was conspiring against the government; party supporters say it was heavily edited.

In a statement, the human rights group Forum-Asia called for Sokha’s release and the charges against him dropped.

“The Cambodian Government must cease the crackdown on and harassment of media, civil society, and opposition parties,” it said. “Cambodia must abide by its national and international human rights obligations, and uphold the values of democracy, especially if the 2018 elections are to retain their legitimacy.”

In an interview on Friday, Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said it would be prudent to prepare for the worst and expressed his frustration with benefactors that failed to hold the government to account.

“International donors are complicit in that they’ve watched this trainwreck happen,” he said. “They’ve kicked the can down the road, and it’s all about to blow up in our faces. The end of Cambodian democracy is around the corner.”

With Sokha facing trial and his CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy in exile for nearly two years, the opposition is without a leader while the space for independent media outlets in Cambodia has shrunk rapidly over the past few weeks.

With this in mind, next year’s national elections, which appear to be the catalyst for the most recent crackdown, will be nothing more than a formality, Ear said.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, whose mandate is to oversee the media landscape in Cambodia, hung up when contacted on Sunday night.

For DeJonge, who steered the paper into its darkest days, its closure will leave a fissure behind.

“The Daily has always had two missions: One, to inform the Cambodian people and two, to train a new generation of Cambodian journalists. The country will be far worse off without these two things.”