Malaysian investor Sivakumar S. Ganapathy speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on May 18 after buying The Phnom Penh Post in a stormy takeover which saw journalists resign en masse over fears for editorial independence. (Photop by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
The Phnom Penh Post is about to be sold again, this time to a Chinese property group with extensive interests in Cambodia, ending a brief reign by controversial Malaysian businessman Sivakumar S. Ganapathy (Siva), according to news reports.
Prince Real Estate Group is expected to take control of the newspaper but the company has declined to comment on speculation that an announcement could be made on July 17.
Siva alluded in local media that a sale had taken place after his name was removed from the masthead two weeks ago amid speculation he was backed by outside funding sources that included Malaysian conglomerate MRails Group, retired Malaysian politician Taib Mahmud and a senior Khmer businessman with close ties to the government.
He recently told journalists he had saved the loss-making newspaper from closing, it had a bright future and it would be restructured, which he reiterated regarding another potential sale over the weekend.
"l did clearly state that there would be a rationalization and restructuring which would be easy to comprehend given the path we are taking," he told online media service AEC Today. "So let's be fair and let the paper evolve, as any business would under a new owner. Enough said, I figure."
Cambodia's once robust independent media has experienced turbulent times. Radio stations deemed inappropriate by the government have been banned, journalists jailed and The Cambodia Daily shuttered after being hit with a multimillion-dollar extraordinary tax bill.
Under Siva, reporters at the Post were even banned from talking to prominent human rights NGO Licadho, sources at the newspaper said, after it was critical of the sale to Siva by Australian miner Bill Clough in early May.
The crackdown on the media was heralded by a broader repression ahead of July 29 elections with the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the jailing of its leader Kem Sokha and the fleeing of his supporters overseas.
According to the government, the move against the opposition was justified as it was fomenting a "color revolution" aimed at undermining the government.
Prince Real Estate recently announced it would build a US$250-300 million residential and office complex following completion of 37-floor condominium. It also donated US$500,000 to the Cambodian Red Cross Society, which is run by Bun Rany, wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
According to its own website, Prince Real Estate has been in Cambodia for more than three years and "has undertaken more than 120 charitable and humanitarian activities, with donations totaling US$3 million and benefiting more than 150,000 people."
However, the sale, if it proceeds, is unlikely to impress free press and human rights advocates wary of China's meddling in regional affairs and its distaste for criticism, particularly its designs over the international waterways of the South China Sea.
Last week U.S.-based cybersecurity experts said a highly sophisticated digital spying network linked to China had stepped up operations targeting the opposition and government institutions such as the National Election Committee ahead of the polls.
Cybersecurity firm FireEye named the Chinese espionage network as TEMP.Periscope, adding it was likely moving to protect Beijing's investment and strategic interests after it was stung by the shock result of the Malaysian election two months ago.