English language newspaper the Cambodia Daily has closed its offices after failing to meet a deadline to repay millions of U.S. dollars in back taxes, prompting Washington to question why Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government didn’t provide the media outlet due process to investigate the debt.
On Aug. 22, Hun Sen had vowed to shut down the Daily if it did not pay U.S. $6.3 million in back taxes and interest, prompting the paper’s owner to call for an investigation into the charges. The Ministry of Economy and Finance’s General Department of Taxation gave the paper until Sept. 4 to pay the debt or face foreclosure.
The Daily voluntarily ended its run of more than 24 years in Cambodia on Monday with a front page article entitled “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship,” in which several observers condemned the deterioration of democracy in the country amid a crackdown on the political opposition, civil society, and independent media in the lead up to a general election set for July 2018.
RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to contact the Cambodia Daily’s publisher for comment on the decision to shut down operations, but the newspaper’s representatives have said they believe the tax debt is politically motivated and have called for an audit.
In an article published on Monday, the Daily quoted owner Deborah Krisher-Steele as saying that the “power to tax is the power to destroy,” and that the Cambodian government had used that power to eliminate the paper.
“In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations,” Krisher-Steele said.
“Instead, the Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding.”
Despite the Cambodia Daily’s decision to close on Monday, the General Department of Taxation said Monday that the paper would still be held accountable for its debt and department chief Kong Vibol ordered the country’s immigration officials to bar its owners from leaving the country.
“The General Department of Taxation would like to request high cooperation from the General Department of Immigration by taking a measure to ban any travel attempt out of Cambodia by Ms. Deborath [sic] Krisher Steele and Mr. Douglas Eric Steele in order to place burden on them and foster the two individuals to come to settle tax debts with the state in advance so as to avoid any risk of any eventual loss of the state revenue,” Kong Vibol wrote in a letter.
The Cambodia Daily was founded in 1993 by U.S. reporter Bernard Krisher to assist in the development of journalism in Cambodia as the country embraced democracy. In April, he sold the paper to Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. Ltd., a company owned by Krisher-Steele, his daughter.
Last month, Hun Sen called the Daily’s leadership “thieves” who had stolen from the country by refusing to pay their debts, prompting Krisher-Steele to respond that her company was “following the tax law impeccably” and demand an explanation of why the General Tax Department believed it was in arrears.
The Cambodia Daily had made charitable contributions of U.S. $39 million in helping to build schools and hospitals around the country, she said at the time, adding that the donations should be deductible, according to Cambodia’s tax law.
On Tuesday, the paper’s editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge expressed concern that next year’s election would be “held in darkness” and that Hun Sen’s government would use every means available to suppress dissent.
“I think that the Cambodia Daily does not get along well with Prime Minister Hun Sen, and he has also had a hard time with us for a long time,” she said.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan, meanwhile, dismissed the accusations of political repression made by observers in the Daily’s final issue and suggested that the paper belonged to a “rebel group” that worked to incite Cambodians against one another.
‘A sad day’
On Tuesday, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh posted a statement on its Facebook page calling the Cambodia Daily’s closure “a sad day for the press and for Cambodia,” noting that the paper had provided the professional foundation for generations of Cambodian and Western journalists.
“The Cambodia Daily’s hard-working, dedicated team of Khmer and Western reporters and staff provided insightful coverage that not only benefited Cambodia’s citizens, but also built an understanding of Cambodia around the world,” the statement said, adding that “this important voice is now lost.”
“We regret that the Cambodian government did not seek a solution that would have allowed the Daily to continue operating. The Cambodia Daily connected, informed, and inspired Cambodians and their friends, both here and internationally; with its closure, there is one less window into, and out of, Cambodia.”
Cambodian citizens echoed the embassy’s concerns, telling RFA they were losing an important source of information on topics including corruption, illegal deforestation, land protests, and political issues, noting that such coverage is difficult to find in other media outlets.
“I think the newspaper … upholds independent views without any bias,” said Chhoeun Sok Houng, a resident of Battambang province who studied English by translating the Daily’s articles into Khmer.
“I call on the government to reexamine the closure of the Cambodia Daily. I want it to reopen as normal, because the newspaper takes no sides. It only tells the truth.”
Chan Bona, a teacher of translation, told RFA that he would miss the independent coverage the Daily provided.
“It reported exactly what the government and the opposition said, and reported actual news without taking any side,” he said.
“Their articles were convenient for me to use as teaching materials. I could use the grammatical structure from their articles to teach, while also learning what happens in society.”
The Cambodia Daily closed amid widespread condemnation of Hun Sen’s government for what critics say is a widening crackdown on dissent in the country ahead of next year’s election.
Since Aug. 22, the government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, while a court charged the head of Cambodia’s opposition party with treason over the weekend.
Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.