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Official warns ex-RFA staffers about continuing to work in Cambodia

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Cambodia Daily Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele speaks last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Japan. Photo supplied

Official warns ex-RFA staffers about continuing to work in Cambodia

Information Ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng on Friday made a thinly veiled threat to jail Radio Free Asia reporters if they continued to work in the Kingdom, following the broadcaster’s announcement last week that it had ceased in-country operations.

The outlet shut down its Cambodian operations after its reach was severely limited by the government’s recent shuttering of more than 30 frequencies, many of which broadcast RFA shows. It was also under pressure from the Finance Ministry for allegedly failing to pay taxes and for being unlicensed.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Kimseng seemed to lash out at the broadcaster, saying he would not acknowledge any media requests from RFA henceforth, while criticising the outlet for continuing to “work in the dark”.

“I do not care whether there is RFA or not. So please do not tell me ‘I am from RFA’, because you have announced that you will stop working in Cambodia,” he said.

Kimseng claimed the broadcaster wanted to “conceal” its reporters’ work, even calling them “spies”, and added that doing so would warrant legal action. Kimseng’s threat was later supported by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.

“In the light, we already find it difficult to discuss with them. So what about when they work in the dark?” he said. “If they want to work in the dark, they have to be responsible for themselves before the law.”

Kimseng went on to dismiss RFA’s reportage over two decades as “exaggeration” aimed at projecting Cambodia as “negative and bad”.

According to the outlet, its reporters’ contracts in Cambodia had been terminated but it will continue to report on the country with the use of “a trusted network of sources” from the Washington, DC, bureau.

RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan said yesterday the broadcaster was appalled at the “blatant threats” made against its former staffers.

“All former RFA staff in Cambodia were under contract due to expire but given the relentless crackdown on independent voices and the free press, we essentially terminated those employment relationships effective the day our office closed,” he said, via email.

“In declaring RFA illegal despite having never issued a tax bill, the government is basically admitting that its inquiry – with which we cooperated at every step – is nothing more than a thin pretext to harass and intimidate.”

The Tax Department also sent a letter on Friday to the Cambodia Daily asking its management to clarify a statement made by Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele that she had been coerced into signing a conciliatory letter to Hun Sen requesting the reopening of the paper.

If she did not do so her husband and company Director Douglas Steele would be arrested, her assistant was allegedly told by Soy Sopheap, the owner of a different newspaper.

Both are currently banned from leaving the country and face criminal charges, along with founder Bernard Krisher, for failing to pay an “exorbitant” $6.3 million tax bill.

“This matter should be between us, Soy Sopheap and the prime minister and it has nothing to do with the Tax Department. If this was a ruse by Soy Sopheap then I feel badly both for the prime minister and us for being bamboozled,” she wrote via email.

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