Writing in Asia Times last year about the state of Cambodia’s media (“A bad day all around for Cambodian media,” published July 2019), I opined: “If the relationship of a journalist to politicians is supposed to be that of a dog to lampposts, as one saying goes, or either at their throat or at their feet, according to another, then Cambodia’s media today are retentive and supine.”
Fitting this summation perfectly is Khmer Times, an English-language daily that heaps praise on Cambodia’s autocratic ruling party and scorn on the party’s critics, and has a long history in the not-so-subtle art of plagiarism. (It’s still amusing that this newspaper is owned by a parent company called Virtus Media.)
Just last week, its worn-down “Ctrl-C” and “Ctrl-V” buttons were harassed again when the newspaper reprinted, word by word and without proper citation, an article that was published the previous day in the German news outlet DW, written by Ate Hoekstra, with additional reporting by Yon Sineat. (Try spotting the difference between the original and reprint.)
After publication of an earlier version of this article, Asia Times was told that Khmer Times has an agreement to exchange articles with DW, but it is uncertain about how resourced articles should be cited.
Hoekstra told me, “KT did not reach out to us when they copy-pasted the article to their website. The editor-in-chief only informed us about an exchange agreement with DW after we specifically asked about it.”
Indeed, several other journalists have accused the newspaper of copy-and-pasting articles without citation in recent months (and presumably without compensation). But it’s a historic vice; Khmer Times has long been dogged by plagiarism. From its beginning, it was occasionally accused of plagiarizing articles published by other English-language newspapers in Cambodia.
Its publisher, Malaysian businessman Mohan Tirvgmanasam Banddam (better known as T Mohan), often copy-and-pasted text from other outlets when writing his editorials. After numerous complaints about this, a Khmer Times announcement in early 2016 said an internal review had found “sufficient evidence” that the allegations of plagiarism were true and the publisher, Mohan, “no longer manages or contributes to the editorial page and has expressed profound regret.”
Alas, that did not put an end to the rumors. Later, it was alleged that the newspaper’s published letters from the public were written internally, possibly by Mohan. Allegations suggest the newspaper uses fake names for its letters’ authors.
In the spirit of openness, I should say that I wrote a couple of articles for Khmer Times when I arrived in Cambodia in 2014, and that the newspaper has occasionally attacked my writing, usually through purported letters from the supposed general public (including one by “Duong Bosba,” who demanded in 2018 that “Asia Times owes Cambodia an apology” after an article I co-wrote on the building of alleged Chinese naval bases).
But what is the reason? Sloppiness or arrogance, I suspect.
In the recent DW case, there was no byline at the beginning of the Khmer Times’ copied article, and only the eagle-eyed reader would notice at the bottom, in italics, the caption, “Additional reporting by Yon Sineat/DW.” This caveat is also almost a copy-and-paste from the DW original. The only difference with this replica is the addition of “DW” at the end.
But clearly, some of its editors know this isn’t the correct way of doing things. When, on May 4, Khmer Times published an article originally from the Agence France-Presse newswire, for instance, it named “AFP” in the byline and at the very beginning of the text – as it should when using wire or syndicated content (and which it does presumably pay for).
Maybe, then, it has something to do with staff issues and money. There have long been rumors about the newspaper’s financial instability, which isn’t unique. The Phnom Penh Post, a once independent newspaper bought out in 2018, has recently dropped its number of pages, possibly because of a financial hole.
Late last year, after Khmer Times’ publisher Mohan was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee from the Philippines, who subsequently resigned from the newspaper, John Le Fevre of AEC News Today alleged that “a number of Philippine government agencies have launched parallel investigations into the recruitment practices” of Mohan, and that he could be stopped from hiring Filipino journalists – a practice that other English-newspapers in Cambodia are thought to favor, given the English-language competency of Filipinos but their lower pay demands than Westerners.
Maybe the newspaper’s paymasters are also cutting it loose. There have long been rumors that Mohan and Khmer Times receive money from the owners of NagaCorp, the Hong Kong-listed parent company of NagaWorld, the only casino legally allowed to operate in Phnom Penh. NagaCorp, owned by Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong, is one of the most lucrative companies in Cambodia.
Chen is thought to have created the now-defunct Cambodia Times in July 1992, and one of his managing editors was Mohan. (Incidentally, several of the Malaysian investors connected to the Cambodia Times in the 1990s, including the firm Asia PR, were also involved in the purchase of the once-independent The Phnom Penh Post when it went on sale in 2018.)
After the Cambodia Times went bust in the late 1990s, Mohan stuck around to work on some other publications in Phnom Penh, such as the now-defunct The Vision, while also serving as personal assistant to a secretary of state. In 2000, he was arrested for allegedly trying to extort US$5,000 from the vice-president, Song Meng Kong, of what was then called Naga Casino. (This is a winding story that is too long to retell, and which involves shadowy, and probably non-existent, rebel groups.)
In 2014, Mohan then created the Khmer Times. In 2017, leaked phone messages purported to show Chen, of NagaCorp, and Hun Manith, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s second son and director of the Defense Ministry’s military intelligence unit, discussing funding for the newspaper. Some of the leaks appear to show Chen asking (or demanding) publisher Mohan to alter certain content from the Khmer Times website, and also to cut costs at the newspaper.
Of course, Mohan has denied these links and threatened to sue The Cambodia Daily, the English-language newspaper that first reported the leaks. But it isn’t known whether he was actually planning to do so, as The Cambodia Daily was forcibly closed a few months later, after the government happened to find the newspaper owed an exorbitant $6 million in back taxes, which it naturally couldn’t pay.
But another possible connection between Khmer Times and NagaCorp (which I don’t think has been reported before) comes through the businessman Wong Tow Fock, who is listed as a director of Khmer Times’ parent company Virtus Media Pte. (Mohan is the other director, but Ministry of Commerce records spell his name Mohan Tirugmanasam Bandam.)
I believe, though cannot confirm, that this is the same Wong Tow Fock who, since 1996, has been chairman of the board of directors at Cambodia Asia Bank Ltd (CAB). According to the Business Registration Department, at Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce, another director at this bank is (or was) Chen Lip Keong, the NagaCorp founder.
(Old sources say Chen was active in founding this bank, though every annual financial report from CAB I can find online fails to mention him as a director. Also of interest, up until 2011 NagaCorp’s financial statements specifically noted that it placed its “demand deposits and fixed deposits” with Cambodia Asia Bank.)
Also according to the Business Registration Department, a certain Wong Tow Fock is also listed as a director at Bassaka Air Ltd, a joint venture between China International Travel Services and NagaCorp. (It flies charter flights to and from Cambodia, mainly for guests of the NagaWorld casino.)
The chairman of the board of directors at Bassaka Air Ltd is Tuon Vuthy, a Cambodian businessman who is a director of several of NagaCorp’s subsidiaries, while another director at is Chen Yepren, son the NagaCorp’s founder Chen Lip Keong.
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the regular column Free Thoughts.