The Cambodia Daily’s deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, has disavowed a “grovelling” apology letter she signed “under duress”, saying she feared her husband was within hours of arrest if she did not.
At a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan event on Tuesday, Krisher-Steele revealed the motivations behind the conciliatory tone of the September 9 letter, which expressed regret that observers had suggested her newspaper’s closure on September 4 was linked to political suppression of press freedom and asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to find a “win-win” solution.
“On the day the Cambodian government seized our bank accounts … I get this frantic message from my assistant saying [my husband] Doug is going to be arrested and you have to sign this letter in two hours, and it was all in Khmer,” she said.
“I have no idea what it says, and I’m really scared that my husband’s going to be arrested. And apparently it’s this grovelling letter apologising for everything I said. So I signed it. I will just have to disavow it . . . Under duress, I signed it.”
In an email yesterday, she said her assistant had received the warning call from Soy Sopheap, the publisher of Deum Ampil newspaper and a frequent government interlocutor. Krisher-Steele claimed the letter was drafted by Sopheap.
“In retrospect, I shouldn’t have signed it without knowing exactly what it said. It was a very bad decision I made out of fear,” she said.
However, Sopheap – who admitted to meeting with Daily management before its closure and suggesting they “soften” their tone in a bid to keep the presses rolling – yesterday denied he penned the letter. “I did not know about that,” he said.
Since the closure, the Tax Department filed a legal complaint accusing its founder and two directors of obstructing the tax process and tax evasion, which could see them face up to six years in prison.
It also issued a travel ban for Daily General Manager Douglas Steele, and his personal bank account was frozen, along with the bank accounts connected to the Daily’s NGO, World Assistance for Cambodia.
Tax Department chief Kong Vibol was unavailable for comment yesterday, while his deputy Vann Puthipol claimed he “was not in charge of this issue”, despite heading the legal complaint, according to court documents.
Krisher-Steele stressed the NGO had no tax dispute and that the lack of access to funds jeopardised jobs for 120 Khmer staff, English and computer classes for 3,000 students, scholarships and mentorships for 600 rural schoolgirls, and food for 40 foster children, whose parents had died due to AIDS.
“I have a husband who has been taken hostage. I have a newspaper that shut down, but now my concern also is: how am I going to feed the 40 foster children?” Krisher-Steele said.
“People told me not to speak, because it may hurt me to speak . . . keep it all quiet, the way you’re being harassed by the Tax Department … But I can’t really do that, because it’s sort of like being abused and not talking about it.”
“I had no warning – it just came out of the blue . . . I thought I was reading Kafka’s novel.”