ucanews.com reporter, Phnom PenhUpdated: March 26, 2018 03:46 AM GMT
A Cambodian woman reads the launch copy of English-language newspaper The Phnom Penh Post in Phnom Penh on Aug. 8, 2008. The newspaper is facing closure after being hit with a huge tax bill. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
Cambodia's last bastion of independent daily news, The Phnom Penh Post, is facing closure after being hit with a huge tax bill, making it the latest casualty in a government crackdown on the media, sources close to the newspaper say.
A report by online news outlet AEC News Today said the Post will need a massive cash injection within the next 60 days and quotes computer hackers as saying Post Media Co. Ltd. has been hit with a tax penalty of US$3.9 million.
Sources close to the Post say its publisher, Australian businessman Bill Clough, "went ballistic" over the penalty and has threatened to close the 26-year-old newspaper unless the tax department backs off.
The reports emerged amid a general crackdown on dissent ahead of July elections and follows the closure of other media outlets including The Cambodia Daily after it was hit with a tax bill of more than US$6 million, the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the jailing of its leader.
Speculation about Prime Minister Hun Sen's intentions has been rampant in the capital with an aggressive tax department, backed by incentivized auditors, arbitrarily targeting Khmer and foreign businesses across the country amid allegations the bureaucracy is being used to shut down opposition supporters and unwanted expatriates.
A much stricter visa regime has also been introduced.
The crackdown, known in some quarters as "the Repression," began shortly after Hun Sen, the world's longest-serving leader, was hospitalized in Singapore last year for what he described on his Facebook page as "urgent medical attention."
Hun Sen insists he is now fine and will rule for at least another decade, but his critics argue he fears losing the next poll as a younger post-war generation increasingly favors the opposition over his Cambodian People's Party, a potential spoiler for his longer-term ambition of handing power to one of his sons.
Senior opposition figures have fled the country and CNRP leader Kem Sokha is behind bars after being charged with treason, with his party dissolved by the Supreme Court in November.
Two former Radio Free Asia journalists, Yeang Sothearin, 35, and Oun Chhin, 49, have been charged with espionage, as has Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, 68, whose case has been tied to the dissolution of the CNRP. All three remain in prison.
"The Repression" has caused an international outcry. Western nations have threatened sanctions, while Hun Sen has ignored their concerns and steered his country closer to China, which is spending billions of dollars on infrastructure and construction projects.
The Post has earned an enviable reputation for independent, objective journalism, which began under its co-founder Michael Hayes, who sold the newspaper in 2008.
At the recent annual meeting of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, a government spokesman made a point of saying that any journalist working in Cambodia in any way without a valid press pass was working illegally.
It's a law the government has traditionally only enforced on special occasions, when journalists needed access to leaders and diplomats during ASEAN meets or elections.
However, journalists have complained that the government and Ministry of Information are using the press pass rule to filter out reporters they don't like before the July poll, which is being staged without the CNRP, the country's only credible opposition.
Former Cambodia Daily journalists have also complained that they have been deliberately denied a press pass because of their past affiliations with the paper.
"Cambodia has not seen this type of crackdown on the media since the early 1970s when Lon Nol was in power. Journalism was non-existent under the Khmer Rouge and barely audible during the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s," said a senior analyst who declined to be named.
"Hun Sen actually enjoyed a convivial relationship with the press throughout much of the 1990s and was tolerant of critics only until very recently. Now that has changed and Cambodia is looking more like a South American dictatorship of the 1980s as opposed to the fledgling democracy it once was."
The Post and the Cambodian government declined to comment.