Prime Minister Hun Sen escalated the government’s attacks on media outlets and NGOs yesterday, reiterating in a speech that the Cambodia Daily would have to “pack up their things and leave” if they failed to pay a $6.3 million tax bill, while at the same time vowing to disallow the NGO coalition “Situation Room” from monitoring next year’s election.
In a wide-ranging speech at an environmental forum, the premier lashed out at the English-language newspaper for failing to pay taxes over the last decade – at one point calling it “chief thief” – and at the same time singled out European Union Ambassador George Edgar for helping to fund the Situation Room and election monitor Comfrel.
The Daily was slapped with a $6.3 million tax bill – which was leaked to the media – earlier this month, and was given 30 days to pay up or face closure and the seizure of its assets. Until the premier’s statement, only Kong Vibol, director of the Tax Department, had called for the Daily’s closure if they failed to pay back taxes.
“It is too much and the ‘chief thief’ does not pay the tax to the state for about 10 years. If you want to stay, please pay the tax to the state,” he said. “If you do not want to pay the tax to the state, please pack up your things and leave.”
Hun Sen also took umbrage at the case being called political in nature – a seeming reference to a statement put out by the Daily earlier this week. “When Cambodia acts, you say that it is political. It is just crazy,” Hun Sen said. “They can abuse us as much as they want to?”
The Daily’s deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, has maintained that she was unaware of the “debt” when she took over the paper from her father, Bernard Krisher, and has also pointed to its being run as a nonprofit prior to the takeover, suggesting charitable donations should be taken into account when calculating its tax burden.
Yesterday, Krisher-Steele again reiterated that the Tax Department had not justified the enormous tax bill nor granted “the legal right of every tax payer in Cambodia” – an audit from the department.
“This is a chance for P.M. Hun Sen to show his leadership and prove that he is capable of running his agencies competently and that there is no political motive behind the move to shut down the Cambodia Daily,” she said in an email, adding that they were willing to pay any tax obligations after a “fair legal process”.
Douglas Steele, the newspaper’s manager, compared the current row between the premier and the paper to a controversy in 1965, in which he said an article written by Bernard Krisher for the American magazine Newsweek about King Norodom Sihanouk was in part responsible for Cambodia’s severing of ties with the US. After the incident, however, the two started a long friendship, and Krisher penned two volumes of the King’s memoirs.
“If the Prime Minister is outraged, he’s making the same claim (and mistake) that King Sihanouk did in 1965,” Steele wrote in a statement.
“Hopefully we can fast forward through the current political theatrics and get on with solving some of the problems for Cambodia’s next generation; the shortage of high schools, a non-existent foster care system and preserving a free press.”
During yesterday’s speech, Hun Sen also turned his focus to Ambassador Edgar of the EU, one of the international donors for election monitors. The premier has repeatedly accused the election monitoring coalition the Situation Room of not having registered as an NGO, and of undermining the government.
He announced yesterday that the Ministry of Interior would not allow the NGO election monitoring coalition to operate next year. “His Excellency Edgar, your team sponsored the Situation Room. The Situation Room is like a war command room. Why did you create it in Cambodia?” he asked.
Edgar said yesterday the EU had financially supported NGOs engaged in election education and election monitoring for the June 4 ballot, just as it had to support the National Election Committee’s efforts.
“At what stage such a collaborative effort effectively becomes a new entity that requires registration is an issue of interpretation of the law, but in general I believe collaboration between NGOs working on similar issues should be encouraged,” he said.
Comfrel’s Yoeung Sotheara said there was no legal backing to “ban” the Situation Room but that the NGO and other groups would individually continue their monitoring activities.
“The ban is to narrow the democratic space and participation of CSOs in the upcoming elections,” he said.