The founder of the now-shuttered Cambodia Daily, Bernard Krisher, has told Prime Minister Hun Sen in a letter that he will travel to the Kingdom to take on any tax liabilities of his daughter, Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele, stemming from the paper’s dispute with the Tax Department.
Krisher-Steele, meanwhile, penned a separate letter to the premier distancing the paper’s closure from accusations of a wide-ranging crackdown on press freedom in Cambodia.
The Daily closed on September 4 after it failed to pay a purported $6.3 million bill for back taxes, with many observers arguing the abruptness of the action against the hard-hitting paper betrayed a political motivation ahead of next year’s crucial elections. The closure came in the wake of several radio organisations – a total of 32 frequencies across 20 provinces, according to a Licadho report on Saturday – also being shut down.
Since its closure, the Daily has seen a sharp escalation from the Tax Department. Its directors – Krisher-Steele and General Manager Douglas Steele – were barred from leaving the country, and a criminal complaint for tax evasion was filed against the pair, along with Krisher, that could see them face up to six years in prison.
Krisher, who founded the paper in 1993, sent a letter in English to Hun Sen saying he had sold the assets to his daughter Krisher-Steele so that she could run the paper after his death, and that their sale agreement showed that he would be liable for any tax issues prior to the March sale of the assets.
“The problem is that now my daughter, Deborah, has been charged with back taxes from 2007 to 2016 which is during the time I owned The Cambodia Daily,” Krisher’s September 7 letter reads.
He asks the liabilities be passed to him and not his daughter, whom he says has fulfilled tax obligations from April onwards. “I am preparing to travel to Cambodia to save my daughter,” he wrote.
Krisher-Steele’s letter, on the other hand, struck a more conciliatory tone, maintaining the paper’s closure was not linked to the recent expulsion of pro-democracy NGO National Democratic Institute, nor was it was a political case that affected the Kingdom’s press freedom.
“I really regret that there were many comments from within and outside Cambodia who regarded the closure of the Cambodia Daily Newsletter as linked to politics, and accused the government of trying to oppress media freedom in Cambodia,” reads the September 9 letter, which was written in Khmer and signed by Krisher-Steele, who also asks the premier to find a solution based on his “win-win” strategy.
A statement posted to the Facebook page of the non-profit founded by Krisher – World Assistance for Cambodia – said that the NGO’s bank accounts had been frozen and most of its operations had been stopped. NGO staffers were now on “furlough”, and the group had just enough money to operate its foster care service until next month.
Steele and Krisher-Steele did not respond to questions about the two letters. Tax Department head Kong Vibol told Fresh News the letters did not change the company’s tax liabilities.
Meanwhile, a report on the recent radio closures by rights group Licadho confirmed initial assessments that the shuttering of the 32 radio frequencies had disporportionately affected independent broadcaster Voice of Democracy, as well as US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
The group’s deputy director for advocacy, Naly Pilorge, said Licadho had looked into the extent of the closures because radio broadcasts are a critical source of information for many Cambodians living in both urban and rural settings. “It’s clear that more independent and specifically US funded or operated media . . . have been recently targeted on a number of accusations, which has led to the shutdown of critical media as we move towards the 2018 national elections,” she said in a message.
Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng, however, said there were just over 10 closures, calling the report “unofficial” and “misleading”.
The Licadho report counts radio broadcasts and provincial relays on similar frequencies in different provinces as distinct.
Pak Mony, manager of FM 88.25 in Banteay Meanchey and FM 105 in Battambang, said he was shut down because they broadcast RFA and VOA. “They said we are violating the law. How is it wrong? Let us know so that we can change it.”