Cambodia Daily newspaper boss blocked from leaving country amid crackdown on critics

Cambodia Daily newspaper boss blocked from leaving country amid crackdown on critics

Cambodia Daily newspaper boss blocked from leaving country amid crackdown on critics

Updated 5 September 2017, 8:10 AEST

Cambodia's tax department orders that the expatriate general manager of the newspaper, which was forced to close yesterday, must stay in the country until the company pays an $8 million tax bill.

Cambodia's tax department has ordered that the expatriate general manager of a newspaper forced to close on Monday must stay in the country until the company pays an $8 million tax bill.

Key points:

  • Government ordered newspaper to pay a huge tax bill almost immediately
  • Government has also closed radio stations and ordered others not to broadcast independent news
  • PM has ruled for 32 years but faces a surging opposition at the 2018 national election

The Cambodia Daily has operated for 24 years, providing a rare voice of independent news and, at times critical, views.

It published its last edition on Monday amid a widening assault on the Government's critics, with the front page headline: "Descent into outright dictatorship."

The Government accused it of failing to pay taxes and ordered the huge sum paid almost immediately.

"The General Department of Taxation requests cooperation with General Department of Immigration to prevent travel out of Cambodia by Ms Deborath [sic] Krisher Steele and Mr Douglas Eric Steele, who are responsible, to push [them] to make the payment," according to the Southeast Asia Globe.

On Sunday, Ms Steele was in Tokyo but it was believed Mr Steele was in Cambodia.

A Government spokesman confirmed the order.

The Daily was a worthy rival

It may have looked like a church newsletter, but The Cambodia Daily did the hard yards of newsgathering, fuelling diplomatic cables, academic research and beery conversations.

Throughout 2005 it started my day, as I led the rival English language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post.

The Daily was required reading in Cambodia.

The late King Norodom Sihanouk was an avid reader, according to founder Bernard Krisher, describing it as his "CIA ... it's the only way I can know what is really happening because no one tells me".

Squeezing Cambodia's complexities into 300-or-so-words was how many young Cambodian and foreign reporters forged their journalistic skills.

While the Phnom Penh Post survives, newspapers flourish amid healthy competition.

The end of The Cambodia Daily is a great loss for the country, and an example of how far Hun Sen will go to settle scores and silence free speech.

- Analysis by Liam Cochrane

"For the time being there is a due process to keep them from leaving Cambodia and they [the tax department] will seek the court to intervene in this matter," Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, told the Southeast Asia Globe.

Prime Minister Hun Sen labelled The Cambodia Daily a "chief thief" — seeming to take a personal interest in the taxation matter.

"The power to tax is the power to destroy ... and after 24 years, one month and 15 days, the Cambodian Government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia's free press," the newspaper said in a statement.

The statement suggested there may be a tax issue, but said the amount had been announced with no audit of the newspaper and promptly leaked to pro-Government media.

Founder and former journalist Bernard Krisher ran the paper at a loss, while his non-profit organisation World Assistance for Cambodia and Japan Relief for Cambodia have built more than 500 schools across the kingdom.

'Platform for the voices of the Cambodian people'

The final issue was a scramble to cover not only the paper's own sudden demise, but the arrest of the country's opposition leader Kem Sokha.

Some staff worked 24 hours straight on the last edition, editor-in-chief Jodie DeJonge said.

"You'd think that they'd all head off and have a pint, and some of them did of course, but most of the staff was just exhausted," she said.

"We have Australians on the staff and these are people who worked for very little money because they believed in the mission of the Daily.

"They felt that they were providing this voice, this platform for the voices of the Cambodian people."

The Cambodian Government has also closed down radio stations and ordered others not to broadcast independent news in Khmer, provided by Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

The result is that much of the rural population — where internet and social media is less common — has been left without independent news.

"The Daily is really a piece of a much broader effort by the Government to quash dissenting voices, going into a critical election year," DeJonge said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled for 32 years but faces a surging opposition at the 2018 national election, with a new generation of young voters not content with the endemic corruption and nepotism of the past.