After 24 years of fiercely independent journalism, the Cambodia Daily will publish their final edition today due to an “exorbitant” $6.3 million tax bill levelled at them last month – an outcome critics say threatens Cambodia’s free press ahead of next year’s crucial national election.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part Cambodia’s free press,” a statement released by the newspaper read yesterday.
The government clampdown, which has ensnared other independent news outlets like Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy, also coincides with the shock arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha around midnight yesterday.
The statement yesterday acknowledged the possibility of a “legitimate” tax dispute, but that did not warrant an “astronomical” tax bill, leaks to the media and public vilification by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Assets purchased by the Daily’s current deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, will be returned to the newspaper’s founder Bernard Krisher, who will handle the paper’s tax obligations.
“Mr. Krisher flatly asserts that the way he operated the Cambodia Daily was lawful and invites the Government of Cambodia to prosecute him if it believes otherwise. If charged, Mr Krisher will return to Cambodia,” the statement reads.
While the ceasing of operations might have signalled an end to the government’s pursuit of the newspaper, Tax Department head Kong Vibol told government mouthpiece Fresh News that it would press ahead in an effort to retrieve the debt, threatening to prevent those responsible from leaving the country.
“The one who is responsible for this news institution is the one who is responsible for the state debt. They cannot escape or leave Cambodia because we follow [the] tax law of Cambodia,” he said, but could not be reached for comments later.
The Cambodia Daily has played an integral part in providing the Cambodian public with an independent source of news, and that continued even on the newspaper’s last day, with reporters fervently working to cover the arrest of Kem Sokha – some editors and journalists had been following the story since 2am.
Despite the sombre mood in the Daily offices yesterday, reporters were hard at work to file what would be their last story for the newspaper. But for News Editor Chhorn Chansy, the sudden closure is hard to digest.
“Sometimes I smile, but it does not mean I am happy,” he said, referring to the last four weeks. “We have the family to support. We have kids going to school and one month is too fast – we are not ready.”
While Chansy is the nerve centre of the Daily’s day-to-day operations, Aun Pheap is one of its fiercest reporters. With a smile on his face, Pheap does not miss an opportunity to talk at length about illegal logging in Cambodia – an issue that he has extensively covered. He recently won an award for reporting on the military’s involvement in logging activities, with reporting partner Zsombor Peter.
“I and also Zsombor sometimes got threats from those okhna [tycoons] and also from military commanders, but we still [kept] writing,” he said.
“Even though the government ignores the information published by independent newspapers, we still keep writing about illegal logging and smuggling of wood to Vietnam.”
The Daily’s impact was certainly not lost on the Post, where every morning reporters and editors make a beeline to grab the morning copy of their cross-town rivals. The ritual of perusing the Daily for scoops or exclusives was not just an act of self-flagellation; it was also an acknowledgement that a vibrant and competitive press strengthened independent journalism in the Kingdom.
“On the news desk when big stories were breaking, you always left the office riddled with anxiety, worrying that the Daily might have crucial details or some obscure, important insight that you had missed,” said David Boyle, former managing editor at the Post.
“[T]he competition had a profoundly positive effect on the quality of reporting and as a result Cambodia enjoyed what I believe was the highest standard of news coverage of any country in the region.”
In the back of the Daily office sit two of the newspaper’s stalwarts – Kim Chan and Van Roeun – who between them boast more than four decades of experience.
Chan is somber about leaving a newspaper he has worked for 22 years. He seems to have done everything at the newspaper – collecting information from various sources across the city in the 1990s, translating Khmer copy for foreign colleagues and occasionally assisting with reporting when the newsroom was in a crunch.
Roeun still won’t give up the chance to have a quick laugh when he jokingly suggests starting his own newspaper.
In his 20 years at the independent media coalface, Roeun has seen it all – even other threats to close the Daily – but he never thought it would actually happen. “Tomorrow morning you will pick up the last copy of the Daily. And that’s it, everything is gone,” he said.