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Freed publisher back in print

THE opposition-aligned newspaper run by formerly imprisoned journalist Hang Chakra resumed publishing this weekend with fresh criticism of alleged government corruption. But as World Press Freedom Day approached, observers said financial concerns could pose a greater threat than censorship to the newspaper’s immediate future.

Saturday’s edition of Khmer Machas Srok was the first since backers temporarily closed shop early last month, citing lack of funds. It was also the first issue released since publisher Hang Chakra, who was convicted last year of spreading disinformation, was freed from prison after receiving a Royal pardon ahead of Khmer New Year.

The edition featured a pair of pieces dealing with corruption allegations and press freedom. A front-page story focused on criticism from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party over allegations of improper payments from global mining giant BHP. The story suggested “high-ranking officials” may have become “rich and arrogant” after allegedly receiving payments from the company.

At this point, BHP has acknowledged only that it is investigating “possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials”.

The paper also featured an opinion piece in which Hang Chakra accused government officials of being slow to prosecute those accused of killing journalists.

“Many journalists were shot to death in the street, causing children to lose their fathers or wives to become widows and living with painfulness,” Hang Chakra wrote. “Why are the government and authorities not searching for the murderers?”

Hang Chakra spent almost 10 months in prison as punishment for publishing a series of articles that suggested corruption in the cabinet of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

One observer said it was unlikely the authorities would try to censor Khmer Machas Srok so soon after Hang Chakra’s release from prison.

“I think the government does not want to be seen as silencing Hang Chakra and his paper,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. “It’s a honeymoon period after the storm.”

He added, though, that the paper could have trouble securing advertising dollars after its brush with the law.

“Trying to find ad revenue is going to be very, very difficult, because it will be seen as an opposition paper. But more importantly, it will be seen as a paper the government doesn’t like,” Ou Virak said. “[Advertisers] don’t want to be seen as supporting or helping to finance a pro-opposition newspaper.”

Khmer Machas Srok workers have previously complained that some advertisers have withdrawn ads after being pressured by the government.

The newspaper’s return this weekend came just before today’s World Press Freedom Day. Rights groups and press organisations warned on Sunday that journalists in Cambodia still face intimidation, harassment and violence.

“The gag on Cambodian journalists is stifling democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” Ou Virak said in a statement to mark the day.

However, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government had no plans to restrict media criticism of the government.

Rather, he said the onus was on the media, including Hang Chakra’s newspaper, to adhere to high ethical standards.

“I have already advised them … that they need to have high standards of professionalism, and that critics must have evidence” when making allegations, Khieu Kanharith said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY

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