The Phnom Penh Post newspaper as a newly launched daily edition in a 2008 file photo. AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The Phnom Penh Post has become the latest target in Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to silence independent media in the lead-up to national elections in July. The news blackout comes as pro-government media aim to gloss over his administration’s many problems and shortcomings ahead of the polls.

According to a story last week on the Phnom Penh-based website aecnewstoday, the majority Australian-owned English-language daily faces a US$3.9 million bill for unpaid taxes. The newspaper also owes a big payout to a former chief executive officer who sued the paper’s owner and won for unfair dismissal.

Tax department auditors spent two months late last year in The Phnom Penh Post’s offices combing over its books, according to people familiar with the situation. Insiders in the tax department have spoken anonymously about alleged irregularities in the media outfit’s accounts, including a bill and fine for unpaid taxes.

The paper’s managers are putting a brave face on the situation, with chief executive officer Marcus Holmes saying the tax bill was business as normal and that there were no plans to shut the publication down.

“It’s so routine,” said Holmes in the March 21 edition of The Phnom Penh Post. “We fully expect we are going to explain this, [the government] is going to accept that and everyone is going to be happy.”

Majority owner Bill Clough did not reply to Asia Times’ request for comment on the tax bill and the paper’s future.

Cambodiann Prime Minister Hun Sen (center) takes a selfie with a supporter on January 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

There are, however, worrying precedents. The tax bill handed to the Phnom Penh Post mirrors action taken against the Cambodia Daily, another English language daily which shuttered its bureau last year after being hit with a back tax claim of US$6.3 million.

The paper has continued with a skeleton crew as an online edition.
Both the Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post often run stories critical of Hun Sen’s government, recently rated by Transparency International as the most corrupt in Southeast Asia.

Khmer Times, now the only other English-language newspaper in Cambodia, is known to echo the pro-government views of its publisher, T Mohan, and is not regarded as independent or critical of Hun Sen’s regime.

The paper was, however, fined a small amount over a tax issue last year, but has only been publishing for about four years. The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily were both established about 25 years ago and are thus possibly liable for larger amounts of unpaid taxes.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party-led government also targeted US-funded nongovernmental organization the National Democratic Institute, which was forced to shut down and its staff ordered to leave the country last year.

Also in the crosshairs were the US Congress-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), whose Khmer language broadcasts were very popular with Cambodians. RFA closed its bureau after being pressured on its registration status and alleged unpaid taxes.

A woman buys a copy of the final issue of The Cambodia Daily at a street stall in Phnom Penh on September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Both radio stations aired stories critical of the government, largely through grass roots reporting, and were two of the few independent voices on the airwaves. Dozens of local radio broadcasters who rented airtime to the two stations were ordered to stop running the news programs. Many Cambodians, however, still tune in to the stations over the internet.

Two Cambodian journalists, both former RFA employees, were arrested and jailed last November on accusations of espionage. The two are still languishing in pre-trial detention on charges that are widely regarded as dubious but have nonetheless had a chilling effect on all media.

They were detained after a raid on a hotel room they had rented in Phnom Penh that was found to contain recording equipment, which the two said was being used to produce karaoke videos. Authorities claim the pair were setting up a secret studio for RFA.

RFA maintains the journalists were no longer employed by the station at the time of their arrests. The two were provisionally charged with “providing a foreign state with information which undermines national defense”, an anti-state crime that carries a possible 15-year prison sentence. On March 16, they were again denied bail by a Phnom Penh court.

With national elections due in July, analysts say Hun Sen has moved to squelch any dissent expressed via the independent media. The moves have coincided with a crackdown on the political opposition, witnessed in last November’s court-ordered dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

A Cambodia National Rescue Party supporter at a rally for the commune election campaign, Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

It’s leader, Kem Sokha, was detained and jailed on treason charges in September for comments he made many years earlier in a video recorded in Australia. The still pending charges stem from wider government accusations that the CNRP was preparing a “color revolution” with the US to overthrow Hun Sen’s regime.

Despite the US giving Cambodia more than US$1 billion in aid since the early 1990s, Hun Sen now has the backing of China, whose aid and loans come without the conditions of democracy and human rights the US and European countries attach to their disbursements.

Hun Sen’s moves against the opposition and independent media clearly stem from a fear of losing power at the ballot box. In Cambodia’s last national election in 2013, Hun Sen faced his toughest challenge in more than three decades of rule. His CPP won but with a greatly reduced majority, as the CNRP made big gains by taking 44% of the vote despite what it claimed was widespread electoral cheating.

Then opposition leader Sam Rainsy asserted that his party had won the vote, a claim widely reported in the independent media that eventually proved to be wrong. Those reports infuriated Hun Sen and CPP stalwarts, and fueled later government accusations that English language media favors the opposition.

The latest move against The Phnom Penh Post, the country’s last remaining independent newspaper, is part of a widespread campaign to assure that the ruling CPP retains power and there is no repeat of the shock they received at the 2013 polls. The clampdown on independent media has reestablished a climate of fear about discussing politics in Cambodia’s rural areas.

The Phnom Penh Post with a front page photo of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and US President Donald Trump, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

After the CNRP’s dissolution, many of the party’s former representatives in villages say they have been under constant watch and cannot hold meetings of any kind without permission from local representatives of the ruling party. Permission is rarely given and if granted gatherings are closely monitored. No media are allowed to report on the infrequent gatherings.

No one is thus taking bets on who will win July’s one-horse-race elections, with an estimated three million people who voted for the opposition in local commune elections last June given no choice on the upcoming ballot.

CNRP leaders have called for a voter boycott, saying the poll will be neither free nor fair without their party’s participation. Hun Sen has countered by urging eligible voters to cast their ballots, tacit acknowledgement that a low voter turnout will discredit his all but certain victory.

While international pressure is slowly and quietly mounting on Hun Sen as he takes Cambodia further away from the democracy many hoped would prevail when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, the risk is there will soon be no independent media left to report on the country’s slide towards full autocracy.

Alan Parkhouse is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Phnom Penh Post and Khmer Times

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