After the closure of the Cambodia Daily in September last year, The Phnom Penh Post practically became the last man standing in terms of independent news content in Cambodia. The sale of the Post to Sivakumar Ganapathy, a Malaysian investor, sparked in Cambodian society a mixture of sad, worried, hopeless, and frustrated sentiment, deeply affecting not only the paper's staff but also other journalists, civil society organisations and the public.
Economically speaking, buying and selling businesses is common in a free market economy. However, the sale of the Post is not a pure economic matter, because it will result in changes to the news content and affect the reputation the Post fought for and maintained since 1992.
Soon after the arrival of the new owner, some of the newspaper's senior editors, including the editor-in-chief, were fired, as they refused to take down an article about alleged links of Mr Sivakumar to Prime Minister Hun Sen. While much has been written about the future of press freedom in Cambodia, very little has touched upon the reasons Mr Sivakumar became interested in the Post. Is it really a profitable business? Is money the only reason?
First, the Post might not be a profitable business for a new investor, given the continuous decline of revenue and a drop in sales. According to the Post's annual report 2017, the print circulation has declined in the last few years and this trend is expected to continue for the whole fiscal year 2018. Even though the Post is the oldest and most famous newspaper published in both Khmer and English, its market share is being challenged by the rapid rise of social media and some other online media platforms. In this regard, increasing print circulation will be very challenging in the future. More importantly, its advertising revenue, which is its largest source of revenue, has been on a decline since 2009.
In order to respond to this uncertainty and to remain in the market, the Post initiated a marketing strategy known as the "Digital First Strategy". According to Kali Kotoski, former business editor of the Post, the strategy focuses on increasing digital sales and transforming the newsroom into a digital platform. It is not clear if the strategy is working well. However, it is evident that, instead of subscribing to a full version of digital news, the majority of people prefer reading only free articles available online. In this context, it seems that the new online sales strategy might not be able to save the business of the Post. The buying of the Post seems to be more politically motivated.
Second, good investment needs a good business environment. Considering the current restricted media landscape, it may not be a smart investment strategy to buy the business and try to produce independent media, assuming that is Mr Sivakumar's intention. After the government's hostilities towards media, civil society organisations, activists and the main opposition party since August last year, democracy, media freedom and the political climate in Cambodia have been severely affected. According to the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, the status of Cambodia dropped from 132 in 2017 to 142 out of 180 countries in 2018. Furthermore, although its new owner expressed his solid commitment to maintaining its 26-year old legacy, including its publishing principles and independence, the dismissal of the editor-in-chief and other senior editors clearly indicated interference in the professionalism and independence of the Post's journalists. Based on this, there is little hope that the Post will be able to continue writing independent news analysis after the takeover.
The Post is famous not only because of its long history, but because of the quality of its news content. Any change in content will alter its status and reputation. As the Post was preparing for its 25th birthday in July 2017, Michael Hayes, a co-founder and its former publisher said, "How the Post survived is an absolute mystery to me." Even though Mr Hayes has never claimed credit for the success of the Post during the time he worked as publisher, the sustainability of the newspaper resulted from not only his savvy business acumen, leadership, motivation and well-trained marketing team, but also the consistently high quality of news content produced since 1992. Should the Post change its content, Cambodians will find it no different from other pro-government newspapers. Its popularity and identity will be permanently lost.
The sale of the Post indirectly benefits the Hun Sen government. Closing the newspaper will only provoke further controversial debates and condemnation by the public and the international community. As the election is less than three months away, it is not wise for the government to cause more tension. Yet, allowing the Post to continue publishing freely will only hurt the government's image further. Instead, the next option appears to be to allow it to continue to publish, but only after changing its news content. Although the new owner publicly denied any political connection to Hun Sen, the change of news content conforms to the interests of the government in silencing critics and trying to maintain political legitimacy in the guise of media diversity without having to encounter pressure from the international community. Unlike the case of the Cambodia Daily, which was forced to shut down, the Post is still publishing. Nobody has been charged with anything. The firing of senior editors and the editor-in-chief is treated as an internal affair under a new owner.
Mr Sivakumar's decision to buy the Post seems to be more politically than economically motivated. The Post has been tactically silenced since his arrival. The last standing "independent" Post has sold its soul.
Sek Sophal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher at the Democracy Promotion Center, the Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies, Beppu, Japan. He also writes for the 'Bangkok Post' in Thailand.