Cambodia’s Last Independent Newspaper in Peril Amid Editorial Concerns Over Sale

The Phnom Penh Post’s new owner fires staff over article detailing his ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong (C) gestures while newspaper staff applaud at the newspaper's office in Phnom Penh, May 7, 2018.

Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post newspaper saw an exodus of senior staff Monday after the editor-in-chief of the country’s last independent daily was dismissed by the paper’s new owner—a Malaysian investor with reported ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has authored a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media in recent months that is widely viewed as part of a bid to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power following general elections set for July 29.

The Phnom Penh Post was sold over the weekend for an unknown sum to Malaysian investor Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, who is the CEO of Kuala Lumpur-based public relations company Asia PR. The sale followed the out-of-court settlement of a U.S. $3.9 million claim by the government against the Post and its former owner, Australian mining businessman Bill Clough, for alleged unpaid back taxes.

On Sunday, the Post ran a story about the sale that detailed Sivakumar’s ties to Hun Sen and quoted observers expressing concerns about the editorial integrity of the 26-year-old paper, which regularly publishes articles critical of the prime minister’s leadership, going forward. Asia PR lists one of its government-related projects as assisting Hun Sen’s “entry into the government seat.”

In a statement that same day, Sivakumar called Sunday’s article “a disgrace and an insult to the independence claim of the newspaper” that “borders on internal sabotage” and ordered editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong, and reporters Brendan O’Byrne and Ananth Baliga fired.

On Monday, Kay Kimsong told RFA’s Khmer Service that he had “decided to resign” from the Post “because I want to ensure that my professionalism as an independent journalist is not compromised.”

“Our readers need true stories like the ones we have been filing. I hope Cambodian labor laws are applied properly in this case,” he added.

Representatives of Sivakumar have claimed that Kay Kimsong’s departure was a “business decision” and part of normal “restructuring.”

Several senior reporters have since been fired or jumped ship, saying they had been ordered by the new ownership to remove Sunday’s article from the Post’s website, but refused, in statements posted to their Twitter accounts. The paper’s CEO, Marcus Holmes, has also submitted his resignation.

The New York Times on Monday quoted a statement issued by more than 20 members of the Post’s staff expressing “disgust for this decision made in contradiction to the values of a free press that our hardworking staff have upheld since 1992.”

“Our article was written in an attempt to maintain the transparency and integrity of our paper as we have done for more than 25 years,” the statement said.

Media crackdown

The events at the Post follow the closure in September of the Cambodia Daily, after the independent English-language daily was hit with a U.S. $6.3 million claim for back taxes by the Cambodian government, the termination of RFA’s Cambodia operations that same month, and the shuttering of more than 30 independent radio stations last summer.

Government officials were not immediately available to respond to RFA’s request for comment on the upheaval at the Post, but The New York Times quoted Huy Vannak, an Interior Ministry undersecretary of state and the president of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia as saying that Hun Sen was “too busy doing the affairs of the nation” to concern himself with the sale of a newspaper.

Huy Vannak added that he was unaware of any prior business relationship between Hun Sen and Sivakumar’s company.

On Monday, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) slammed the sale of the Post in a statement, calling it “the final attack on press freedom in Cambodia.”

“This sale marks the end of media freedom and pluralism in Cambodia,” RSF said.

“After the closure of Radio Free Asia and Cambodia Daily, the Phnom Penh Post was one of Cambodia’s last independent media voices. In the run-up to general elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen is pursuing his shocking crackdown on media outlets that don’t toe the government line.”

Last month, RSF dropped Cambodia in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index from 132 to 142 out of 180 countries, citing moves against the media by Hun Sen.

“His suppression of independent voices, his increased dominance of the mass media and his meticulous control of social media are a disturbing echo of the methods used in China, which has invested millions of euros in Cambodia’s pro-government media,” it said at the time.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.