In a statement released on Wednesday, Cambodian civil society organizations slammed the takeover by a government-linked businessman of The Phnom Penh Post, calling the move and the subsequent firings or resignations of large numbers of its staff a “blow to press freedom” in the country.
The Post 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.
The paper was sold over the weekend following 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.
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.
“This is just the latest in a series of attacks which have devastated Cambodia’s media landscape since mid-2017,” Wednesday’s joint statement signed by 79 Cambodia-based civil society organizations and rights groups said.
“The Phnom Penh Post was Cambodia’s last remaining independent English-Khmer language daily, and its change of ownership raises serious questions about the paper’s continued independence,” the statement said.
“An independent media, free from editorial interference by corporate and political interests, is a crucial part of any open and functioning democratic society that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution and international human rights law.”
Article taken down
On Sunday, the Post ran a story about the sale that detailed new owner Sivakumar Ganapathy’s ties to Hun Sen that was quickly taken down, with Sivakumar then ordering editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong and two reporters fired.
Several senior reporters were later fired or jumped ship, saying in articles posted to their Twitter accounts that they had been ordered by the new ownership to remove Sunday’s article from the Post’s websites but refused.
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.
Last month, Paris-based media freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders 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.
“Hun Sen has effectively killed the spirit and practice of independent journalism that so many Cambodians have struggled and even died for over the past 25 years,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement Tuesday.
“Donors have poured billions of dollars into Cambodia in an effort to help the country transform into a rights-respecting multiparty democracy,” Adams said.
“They need to pressure Hun Sen to restore press freedom and end the campaign to silence all critics before more fundamental freedoms are wiped out.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Richard Finney.