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'Phnom Penh Post' sale raises press freedom fears

Watchdogs fear another blow to independent journalism in Cambodia after low-profile Malaysian takes control of newspaper

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'Phnom Penh Post' sale raises press freedom fears

A woman reads a copy of the first daily edition of The Phnom Penh Post at a news stand in Phnom Penh in August 2008. The sale of the well-respected newspaper has increased fears about declining press freedom in Cambodia. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)  

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Cambodia's last bastion of independent daily news, The Phnom Penh Post, has been sold to a Malaysian investor after Australian owner Bill Clough was hit with an unexpected multimillion-dollar tax bill.

Post Media Co. Ltd., which includes The Phnom Penh Post and Post Khmer publications, will be acquired by Siva Kumar G. for an undisclosed sum. Siva is a low-profile businessman with extensive contacts in Cambodia through his firm AsiaPR, where he is managing director.

Clients include railway and logistics firms. AsiaPR says on its website that it operates internationally through associate public affairs companies in the United Kingdom, the United States, India and Australia "to generate positive editorial coverage in print and electronic media" and that Siva is a journalist by "discipline and training" in the U.K. and Australia. 

The sale emerged after it was reported, including by ucanews.com, that the Post was cash-strapped after Post Media was landed with a tax bill of US$3.9 million. Sources said Clough, a mining magnate from Perth, "went ballistic" over the penalty and threatened to close the 26-year-old newspaper unless the tax department backed down.

The bill arrived amid a crackdown on dissent ahead of July elections and followed the closure of The Cambodia Daily last September after it was hit with a tax bill of more than $6 million, the dissolution of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and the jailing of its leader.

Broadcasts by Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy have been banned and journalists, including Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, have been charged with espionage and jailed.

The Phnom Penh Post built an enviable reputation for fierce, independent journalism after it was established by Americans Michael Hayes and Kathleen O'Keefe in 1992 as United Nations peacekeepers arrived and established a framework for democracy.

Hayes told ucanews.com that the sale of the Post was not a surprise.

"It wasn't a question of if but rather when they would unload the paper. The Clough family business is involved in digging for rocks and looking for oil, not running newspapers," he said.

"At least Bill Clough kept it going as long as he could, but I'm guessing he lost a bundle in the last decade, maybe US$6 million or US$7 million. The better question is who is Siva Kumar G.?"

Hayes sold the newspaper to Clough in 2008.

Clough, who declined an interview request from ucanews.com, hinted the difficult climate in Cambodia, known as "The Repression," contributed to the sale.

"The region is full of turbulence and the recent changes within Cambodia ahead of the upcoming elections have put the spotlight on The Phnom Penh Post as the last remaining truly independent media group in the country," he said in a statement.

"There have been rumors flying in all directions with questions about our ongoing survival, which we hope that now we can finally dispel."

The rumors included a potential buyer through a Malaysian partner and a possible merger of The Phnom Penh Post with the rival Khmer Times.

Siva has been linked to Mohan Tirvgmanasam Banddam, owner of the Khmer Times, which has built a reputation for being government-friendly. In 2015, Mohan retired from writing for his own paper after he was accused of plagiarism.

"It looks like press freedom in Cambodia just took another blow with the sudden sale of The Phnom Penh Post, the last really independent English-language daily, to an obscure Malaysian investor heading a railroad and logistics firm," said Phil Robertson, spokesman for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"The new owners need to demonstrate off the bat their faithfulness to the Post's mission of editorial independence and impartial, in-depth investigations of rights abuses and wrongdoing."

His sentiments were echoed by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC), which has witnessed a sharp decrease in the numbers of foreign journalists working in Cambodia since the closure of The Cambodia Daily. About 30 journalists have left or cannot get press passes.

"The Phnom Penh Post has been a stalwart voice of independent journalism in a country tumbling down press freedom ratings and I hope its tradition of telling truth to power continues," OPCC president Nathan Thompson said.

In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index collated by Reporters Without Borders, Cambodia slumped 10 places to 142nd spot.

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