A man reads the Phnom Penh Post at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 8, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
A man reads the Phnom Penh Post at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on May 8, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

The new owner of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post newspaper got off to a rocky start on Monday with a crashing wave of resignations and sackings that have already put the publication’s future independence in doubt.

The paper’s newsroom was heaving with emotion on Monday after a front-page story about Sivakumar S Ganapathy, the English-language paper’s new owner, reportedly enraged the Malaysian public relations executive.

“I got fired by the new owner…because I’m the editor-in-chief and I allowed the printing of the independent story based on journalistic integrity,” Kay Kimsong told Southeast Asia Globe magazine shortly after he was dismissed.

The upheaval followed months of turmoil and speculation about the Post’s future. When the new management arrived on Monday, there was no sign of easing into their new roles to win the hearts and minds of newsroom staff.

Soon after Kimsong’s sacking, five senior staff members – Managing Editor Stuart White, Digital Director Jodie DeJonge, Web Editor Jenni Reid, Business Editor Brendan O’Byrne and senior journalist Ananth Baliga – all resigned in protest. Chief Executive Officer Marcus Holmes also stepped down.

On Tuesday another seven staff resigned, all foreigners, as confidence in the new owners continued to plunge.

On Monday, many of the remaining 200 or so staff symbolically stopped work and filled the corridors before walking out of the paper’s eighth-floor offices down to the ground floor to bid farewell to long-time editor Kimsong. Many were in tears.

Editor-in-Chief Kay Kimsong waves as he walks out after being fired from the Phnom Penh Post on May 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

It was a dramatic, if not tumultuous, start for the decades-old paper’s new era.

Journalists at the Post said the new owner was incensed that the paper had run a front page story on Monday’s edition – which first appeared on its website late Sunday night – about business links between his public relations firm and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff on Monday to remove the story from the website, describing it as “damaging” and inaccurate.

Inside sources said the journalists refused to remove the story, countering it was factual and offered instead their resignations, which were quickly accepted. The “offending” article remained on the Post’s website until late Tuesday morning.

Kimsong told staff members that Ly Tayseng, a Cambodian lawyer who represents the buyer, told him that he had made “a serious mistake” by allowing the story to be published and then fired him.

“I trust my reporters and my editors, and I think that being journalists we made the right decision. But it’s their business and they said, ‘Kimsong, you’re the editor-in-chief and you made a big mistake.’”

“I am happy for running the front page today,” Kimsong said. “I think that is what the profession of journalism is all about, their job is telling the truth. The owner does not accept the truth.”

Those who know Kimsong were not surprised that he stood his ground and backed his staff against the new management. He had a tough upbringing and fought many personal battles just to survive.

As a five-year-old boy he watched his father and grandfather die under the Khmer Rouge. At the end of that genocidal regime, he walked with his mother for 25 days from Battambang to Phnom Penh, a distance of nearly 300 kilometers, with little food or water.

A disclaimer is required: I am a former editor-in-chief of The Phnom Penh Post and spent almost four years in that role, during which the paper won 24 international media awards for its unbiased, brave and fearless reporting.

Phnom Penh Post newspapers on a desk on May 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Southeast Asia Globe, whose offices are a short walk from the Post, also spoke to Post Managing Editor Stuart White, who had worked at the paper for six years. He was the first staff member to refuse to remove the story from the website.

“I was asked to take down the story about the sale by a colleague, who characterized it as a direct order from the new management,” White told Southeast Asia Globe. “I didn’t feel like I could do that in good conscience, so I resigned immediately.”

The Post’s Chief of Staff Chhay Channyda, who has worked at the paper for a decade, said she was in shock after Monday’s sackings and resignations. On Tuesday, she told Asia Times she would take a wait and see approach about her future. “We have to see the new legacy of the Post and decide later,” she said.

Since the sale of the newspaper was officially announced on May 5, journalists and media analysts across the region have cast doubt on the paper’s future direction.

The questions stem from links uncovered between The Phnom Penh Post’s new owner and both the Cambodian and Malaysian governments, evidence of which was included on Asia PR’s website. The site said it provided paid services that included “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat.”

The information was printed on the Post’s front page on Monday’s edition. During an internal staff meeting that same day, Joshua Purushotman, a Malaysian national and the paper’s new editor-in-chief, told employees that the “article damages our reputation.”

It’s still not clear if the paper’s sale came under duress. The Post’s previous majority owner, Australian national Bill Clough and his family, were in recent months handed a US$3.9 million bill for back taxes and fines from the government’s taxation department.

Former Phnom Penh Post majority owner Bill Clough. Photo: Youtube

The Cambodia Daily, another Phnom Penh-based English-language newspaper known for its critical news coverage, closed last year after being hit with an even larger tax bill.

Many believe the back tax claims are an official ploy to shutter the only media outlets that regularly took the government to task before this July’s pivotal national elections. Various government spokesmen, however, have denied the claim.

The Phnom Penh Post’s tax bill was settled as part of the sale, according to a statement from Clough, but no further details were provided on the terms of the transaction.

Clough and his sister Sue Townsend were contacted but did not reply to Asia Times’ request for comment. Clough is believed to have already left Cambodia.

Rumors are rife on how much the new owner paid for the loss-making enterprise. The lowest figure being bandied about is around US$300,000. One of Clough’s former business associates told Asia Times the figure was closer to US$5 million, ironically paid in cash on World Press Freedom Day, May 3.

Neither of these accounts can be independently verified and the rumors will no doubt continue to fly among Phnom Penh’s chattering classes until Clough, notoriously media-shy, sets the record straight.

At the same time, the paper’s new owners will have their work cut out for them. Many are keen to see whether they handle various tough stories, ranging from illegal logging to corruption to politics, in the same independent spirit of the previous ownership. It’s a legacy they failed on their first day on the job.

See also: http://www.atimes.com/article/new-start-or-sad-end-for-cambodias-last-free-newspaper/

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