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Cambodian press freedom dealt another blow

Phnom Penh Post to close by the end of March due to company’s falling revenues since the Covid-19 pandemic
A Cambodian vendor reads the Phnom Penh Post newspaper at her newsstand in Phnom Penh on May 7, 2018. The newspaper hailed as Cambodia's last independent English daily will close by the end of March due to the company’s falling revenues after the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn.

A Cambodian vendor reads the Phnom Penh Post newspaper at her newsstand in Phnom Penh on May 7, 2018. The newspaper hailed as Cambodia's last independent English daily will close by the end of March due to the company’s falling revenues after the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 01, 2024 10:40 AM GMT
Updated: March 01, 2024 10:47 AM GMT

Cambodia’s dwindling media landscape was dealt another blow with the management of the Phnom Penh Post announcing the English and Khmer editions of the daily newspaper will close by the end of this March due to financial difficulties.

The closure spells an end to a storied newspaper which earned a reputation for fierce independence after it was established by Americans Michael Hayes and Kathleen O’Keefe in 1992.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, the company’s revenues have significantly decreased,” its management said in a statement published in the March 1 edition.

It said the shareholders had been trying to inject more funds and generate income to restore the financial condition of the company and continue publishing the newspaper, which has been operating for more than 30 years.

"Our shareholders have decided with deep regret, to cease publication of the newspaper, both the English and Khmer editions, by March 29, 2024,” it added.

Hayes and O’Keefe invested their life savings of $50,000 in starting the newspaper which would cover the last six years of civil war and the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge before focusing on this country’s post-war reconstruction.

It would also provide a launch pad for young journalists who never shied from criticizing the government or the ruling elites that remain tightly connected to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Hun Sen who served as prime minister for 38 years.

But cash flow was always an issue. Hayes once said he “daydreamed about finding boxes of cash” and “if I had a buck for every time I worried about money I’d be a millionaire.”

Australian mining magnate Bill Clough bought the paper from Hayes in 2008 for an undisclosed sum. New printing presses were acquired, and the Phnom Penh Post went from fortnightly editions to daily, winning dozens of international awards for excellence and independent reporting.

But a government crackdown launched in 2016 against political opposition took its toll. In 2016, The Cambodia Daily was forced to close after being hit with an exorbitant tax bill of $6.3 million. Its last headline read: “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship”.

As opposition politicians were being rounded up, the Phnom Penh Post was also handed a tax bill which sources said was close to $3.9 million and was roundly rebuked by free press advocates and civil society groups as part of a wider government effort to silence any form of dissent.

Clough decided to sell his newspaper to the Malaysian managing director of AsiaPR, Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, and the Phnom Penh Post would face mounting criticism that it was simply toeing the government line as the 2018 elections were looming.

Journalists who remained with the Phnom Penh Post struggled under the new regime but were credited with their economic and financial coverage of Cambodia. But the newspaper continued to hemorrhage money and sources said it was losing at least US$20,000 a month.

“You have to wonder,” said a Cambodian-based analyst who declined to be named. “Its closure was announced less than a week after the Senate elections, which completed the five-year election cycle and secured CPP control. This newspaper is costly and might not be needed anymore.”

The main opposition Candlelight Party was disqualified from last year’s general election enabling the CPP to win control of the national assembly and let Prime Minister Hun Sen hand power to his eldest son Hun Manet.

As expected, it won absolute control of the Senate on Sunday.

The glossy magazine, Southeast Asian Globe, announced it was suspending its print edition last October after also running into financial difficulties, but its online publication remains, which leaves less than a handful of small, independent online news outlets.

The Phnom Penh Post management did not comment on its online operations.

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