Grave danger in Cambodia

Grave danger in Cambodia

After operating for more than 24 years, the English-language The Cambodia Daily faced its final curtain call this week, with the last edition hitting newsstands on Monday. Observers believe the closure, which stemmed from a tax dispute between the Daily and Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, is a threat to the freedoms of the media in the country.

According to news reports, the General Department of Taxation Cambodia (GDTC) issued an order on Aug 4 for the paper to pay US$6.3 million (209 million baht) in taxes after a reassessment. The sum, comprising taxes owed and interest, was due in 30 days. Reports said the department was issued with a threat to freeze the accounts and prosecute the newspaper's owner.

Deborah Krisher-Steele, deputy publisher of the paper, said the newspaper did not receive any warnings before receiving the tax bill, which was not based on an audit of the newspaper's books. Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, however, defended the tax on the paper, saying it had to "pay tax the same as any other business".

Founded by US journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993, The Cambodia Daily was one of three English-language newspapers in daily circulation, along with the Phnom Penh Post and the newer Khmer Times.

The Cambodia Daily gained a reputation for its unbiased and fearless news reporting which irritated Hun Sen. About half of the 30-strong editorial team were foreigners.

Earlier this year, Hun Sen berated some of the paper's journalists as "servants of foreigners".

While conceding that it had tax issues with the government, the Daily said it believes the move was politically motivated.

"The power to tax is the power to destroy," the paper said in a statement.

Its last edition was published with the headline "Descent into outright dictatorship".

The Cambodia Daily, which published 4,000-5,000 copies a day, was considered a small but powerful paper. Its readers ranged from the country's elites including Hun Sen, foreign ambassadors, academics and the general population.

Rights advocacy groups praised The Cambodia Daily for its remarkable role in reporting on human rights violations in Cambodia, covering stories such as the legal harassment case against a prominent land rights activist and the arbitrary detention of five human rights defenders, among others.

The paper's closure came amid a crackdown on critics of Hun Sen. It coincided with the arrest on Sunday of Cambodia's main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who was charged with treason.

Earlier, other independent news outlets such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and Voice of Democracy were also hit by the government-led clampdown.

It is believed the crackdown on the media and Kem Sokha's charges are part of Hun Sen's relentless attempts to silence his critics ahead of the general election scheduled to take place next year when he will face a tough challenge from the CNRP which managed to grab a significant proportion of the votes in the 2013 election.

The CNRP, a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, has emerged as the sole challenger to the Cambodia's People's Party of Hun Sen, who has stayed in power for more than three decades, one of the world's longest-ruling leaders.

However, the opposition managed to boost its share of the vote in local elections last June. The increasing popularity of the opposition has been linked with growing disaffection against the strongman and his cronies.

The clampdown on the media and government critics raises concerns that media freedoms in Cambodia are now in grave danger.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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