Last year in Cambodia, 32 radio stations that had broadcast content critical of the government were forced off air. The Cambodia Daily, a popular newspaper run with support from NGOs that often highlighted government corruption, was hit with a US$6 million tax bill and forced to close. And now in May The Phnom Penh Post was hit with a US$3.9 million tax bill and a lawsuit by a former CEO, and pressured into a dubious sale. The other remaining English-language daily, the Khmer Times, has strong links to the government. There are fears that all media in the country are now either becoming irrelevant or becoming pro-government mouthpieces.
Phnom Penh Post owner Brian Clough, an Australian mining magnate, sold the paper to Asia PR, a Malaysian public relations company that boasts Prime Minister Hun Sen as a client. Owned by Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, Asia PR made a promise to preserve editorial independence, but contradicted that almost immediately. When the PPP published a defiant article with details of its sale and the political connections of the buyers on May 7, Sivakumar ordered the story's immediate removal from the website. When editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong refused, he was promptly sacked. Some 20 Khmer and foreign journalists subsequently resigned in protest or were also fired.
While some of the causes and effects are murky, one of the most knowledgeable sources on the developments is Alan Parkhouse, former editor-in-chief of both The Phnom Penh Post and the Khmer Times. He spoke to Elite+ via email on the subject of press freedom in Cambodia and around the region.
How Cambodia lost its free press
“Many saw the tax bill levied at the Cambodia Daily as a political ploy to close down a newspaper that was very critical of the government,” Mr Parkhouse said about last year's closure. “But others point out that for most of its time the Daily had been registered in Japan as a charity and it was only in the last few years that it came under pressure to register in Cambodia as a business. The taxman saw it differently and levied the tax from the day the paper started, rather than from when it finally registered as a paper with the government. While Cambodia's taxation department started making people pay personal income tax around that time and businesses that had avoided tax suddenly were asked to cough up, most people believe the bill levied on the Daily had political undertones.
“As for The Phnom Penh Post,” he added, “tax auditors were in the paper's offices going through the books while the drama at the Daily was making headlines. Sources say the tax bill eventually levied on the Post was not because the company had avoided paying the mandatory company tax, but was levied on the money sent into the company every month to pay the staff salaries and running costs – the Post ran at a loss and the owners had to keep sending money to prop up the business. The tax was levied on that money sent in, not on any profit the company made because it didn't make any. At the same time former CEO sued for unfair dismissal and won his case against the owners of the Post, an amount of US$260,000. As far as I know, that case has gone to appeal, but combined with the tax bill, the owners were facing a huge payout.
“Insiders say that rather than see the Post close in a blaze of publicity like the Daily, which reflected badly on the government, it was decided at the highest levels that it would be better if someone bought the Post and kept it going. Sources say the sale was arranged through a Malaysian who already had interests in the country. However, investigative journalists quickly dug into the background of the new owners and discovered old links to the prime minister and on its last day under the old owners, the Post published the story. The following day under the new owners heads' rolled and the paper's reputation suffered a damaging blow.
“With the Khmer-language papers all pro-government – apart from the Khmer-language edition of The Phnom Penh Post – and the Post's future independence in doubt, there is now no independent media voice in Cambodia left apart from Voice of America, a radio station.”
In his post for 33 years, Hun Sen is the world's longest-serving prime minister. A former Khmer Rouge commander, he was a member of the Vietnamese government installed in 1979, following the Pol Pot genocide and Vietnam invasion. He lost the UNsanctioned 1993 election but managed to install himself as co-prime minister, then later launch a coup against the elected prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, son of Cambodia's King Sihanouk.
While Cambodia has ostensibly remained a democracy, Hun Sen gradually tightened control over the government, his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the country as a whole, attacking opposition politicians such as Sam Rainsy, forced into exile on defamation charges, and last year Kem Sokkha, imprisoned on spurious treason charges, to the point that the country no longer has a viable opposition.
Hun Sen's family have control over 114 domestic private companies, across all sectors of the economy and within government and the military. He has had to be very resourceful at times to cling to power, but there is little doubt that he is more dictator than prime minister
In the most recent vote in 2013, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 44% of the vote despite many accusations of electoral fraud by the CPP. Since then, there have been purges of government critics and many charges against opposition politicians, with over 100 banned from politics for five years. Also, high-profile political activist Kem Ley was assassinated outside a petrol station. Others have been threatened or imprisoned.
The judiciary – along with the military, police and media – is heavily influenced, and late last year the Supreme Court disbanded the CNRP, meaning Hun Sen can run for re-election this July without opposition, despite Sam Rainsy's attempts from exile to form a new opposition party.
While support for Hun Sen among the populace and military seems weaker than ever, protests are repressed and Hun Sen's hold on power is stronger than it has ever been. In fact, his survival may depend on his leadership, as charges of corruption and political murder would complicate any retirement.
As in the early years of Hun Sen's leadership, the international community seems resigned to working with him. The US has suspended some aid, and the EU has condemned some political developments, but any threat of sanctions has simply moved the Hun Sen government closer to China, whose aid is not contingent on human rights, democratic mechanisms, independent institutions or free press.
Implications for Southeast Asia
What does the loss of independent media in Cambodia mean for the region as a whole? In fact, it merely brings Cambodia in line with much of the rest of ASEAN, whose countries received dismal scores in the recently released Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders. Since press freedom is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy, such indexes are a useful way of measuring the degree of authoritarianism.
As Mr Parkhouse pointed out, “Now the two remaining English-language newspapers in Cambodia are controlled by Malaysians. Controlled is a more accurate word than owned. And Malaysia does not have independent media and recently passed a law about 'fake news' thought to give politicians more power to control the press.”
Malaysia did score worse than Cambodia on the Press Freedom Index, at 145 out of 180 countries (with North Korea at No 180 and Norway at No 1), while Cambodia was ranked 142. Thailand and Myanmar scored slightly better, at 140 and 137 respectively, and the region's top scorers were East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines, at 95, 124 and 133. Southeast Asia's worst performers were Singapore (151), Laos (170) and Vietnam (175), which still came out slightly above China (176), whose lead on media control many countries are now following.
Collectively, Southeast Asia is the world's worst performing region in press freedom, with only tiny East Timor in the top 100 and most towards the very bottom. While other developing regions such as Africa and South America have had some improvements and successes, in ASEAN authoritarianism is only becoming more entrenched.