Asia PR completed its purchase of the Phnom Penh Post. The newspaper was the last remaining semblance of a free media outlet in Cambodia.
The Cambodian free press has entered the darkest days in recent memory. The Phnom Penh Post was the last sanctuary of free reporting in Cambodia. A Malaysian PR company with links to Prime Minister Hun Sen bought the newspaper in early May. Its sale signals a death blow to the free press in Cambodia.
As soon as the sale was completed, journalists lost their jobs
The day after Asia PR completed the purchase, it fired several senior editors. There was a story on the Phnom Penh Post’s website describing the relationship between Asia PR and Hun Sen.
Representatives of Asia PR demanded the Post remove the article. Anath Baliga, one of the article’s authors, said, “the first thing they [Asia PR] said was to take the article down, right now”.
When the Post’s management team refused, Asia PR fired the editor in chief, Kay Kimsong. Three other senior editors resigned in protest.
Hun Sen is employing classic autocratic silencing techniques
The sale is another example of Hun Sen’s autocracy in action. Since 2017, he has systematically closed or manipulated media outlets under his control. In September, he presented the Cambodia Daily with a US$6.3 million tax bill. The newspaper had to close.
Hun Sen employed a similar tactic against the Phnom Penh Post. Last year, the Post was hit with a US$3.9 million tax bill. Australian owner, Bill Clough, attempted to push on despite heavy losses. Then, on May 5th, he agreed the sale with Asia PR.
He is creating an environment of hostility
Hun Sen views a free and independent media as a direct threat to his government. Rather than directly censor publications, Hun Sen has created an environment of hostility. He has used the Cambodian tax system to force newspaper closures and sales.
Half of the country’s journalists now report intimidation. Some are behind bars, facing arbitrary charges. Authorities arrested two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) reporters in November. They stand accused of illegally collecting information from a foreign source. They are currently in jail awaiting trial.
An Australian journalist named James Ricketson was also arrested in January. The 68-year-old stands accused of espionage. He faces between five and ten years in prison if convicted.
The forced closures and arrests have contributed to Cambodia’s drop in the World Press Freedom Index. It now sits in 142nd place. Down ten places from 2017.
Will the situation improve?
Self-censorship has become an established part of the Cambodian press. Journalists do not know where the limits are or what could get them thrown in jail. The result is the collapse of a free press in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government has achieved strict censorship without the use of draconian laws. Instead, journalists fear for their personal safety. The government taps their phones, and there have been cases of death threats. This is far more repressing than censorship laws.
Censorship laws provide a clear framework for what is acceptable and unacceptable. Journalists know what the consequences will be for their speaking out. A climate of fear is far less black and white. Journalists are forced to live in a state of fear and uncertainty. Once created, an atmosphere of intimidation takes longer to remove than legal obstructions.
In this climate of fear, a free press cannot grow and flourish. The loss of the Post as a haven for free reporting is more than the loss of a national institution. It is the death of the last tree in the once thriving forest of the Cambodian free press.