In Cambodia Daily’s shuttering, ill winds for country’s democracy?

The English-language newspaper is just one outlet forced to close in recent weeks. Analysts view a surge of restrictions as part of long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen's increasingly authoritarian game plan ahead of elections next year.

Nathan Thompson
Staff gather for the final editorial meeting of the Cambodia Daily. The paper was shut down by a government crackdown on independent media, representing a surge in authoritarianism from the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister of 32 years.

The Cambodia Daily office walls are bare but for a few photos of journalists picking splinters on fishing boats and chasing illegal loggers in the forest. The paper moved to new premises in a nondescript street in the capital of Phnom Penh in December 2016, and the space doesn’t feel lived in yet.

It’s as if they expected to get closed down – which they did last week. Vendors in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, were soon hawking badly photocopied versions of Monday’s last edition after it sold out within hours. The headline took a parting shot at the government that had forced it to close: “Descent into Outright Dictatorship,” it said.

“I went to work for ten years expecting the Daily to get shut down,” says Kevin Doyle, a former editor-in-chief. “People are afraid to speak out in Cambodia’s political environment and we knew our role was to show you should not be afraid.”

The Daily was shut during weeks of turmoil in Cambodia as the government closed radio stations, shut the American-affiliated National Democratic Institute, and imprisoned Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition, for treason. The crackdown was condemned by Cambodia’s donors – except China, which pumps more foreign investment and donations into the country than anyone else – and led some observers, like the US Embassy in Cambodia, to question the country’s commitment to developing democracy – particularly ahead of 2018 elections.

The Daily’s closure, Sokha’s arrest, and the shutting of independent radio stations represent a surge in authoritarian behavior from the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister of 32 years. Analysts say the government is rattled after Cambodia’s opposition party earned 44 percent of votes in June’s local elections, compared to just 31 percent in 2012. Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took 51 percent.

Heng Sinith/AP
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment workers during a visit to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on Aug. 23. Several media outlets are being forced to shut down their operations, shrinking the space left for political activity and free expression ahead of next year’s general election.

“The crackdown is a tactic by the ruling party to guarantee success in the 2018 general elections,” says rights and economy analyst Ou Virak, founder of the local Future Forum think-tank. “The government is worried.”

“War will happen if the CPP loses control,” Hun Sen said in a speech in May. Taking aim at the opposition, the prime minister said, “No guns are needed to cause war ... words can cause war if the CPP loses patience and [goes] to your homes and burns down your homes.”

A rush of closures

Rumors of the Cambodia Daily’s demise were circulating since Aug. 4, when news that it owed the tax department $6.3 million was leaked to Fresh News, a pro-government outlet.

The tax department calculated the amount without reference to the Daily’s books, although publishers made them available, according to Jodie DeJonge, the Daily’s editor-in-chief. The government has sued the paper’s owners for alleged tax evasion.

The Daily was just one of many organizations the government claimed was not in legal compliance. In late August, 20 independent radio broadcasters who aired programs from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) or American-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have been closed. The American-affiliated National Democratic Institute was also shut and its staff booted out of the country.

“There might be some back taxes that we should pay,” said Deborah Krisher-Steele, the Daily’s current owner. “We are perfectly willing to pay … but we weren’t given the chance; it seemed like [the government] were very eager to close us.”

Kong Vibol, head of the tax department, could not be reached for comment. 

It was a bleak final editorial meeting. Fingers were pressed to foreheads while Ms. DeJonge coached her staff about speaking to other agencies. “You can speak to the press, just stay away from politics,” she said.

A few days later, on Sept. 2, Ms. DeJong stood up at journalist town hall meeting at Meta House, a German cultural center in Phnom Penh. “Tomorrow, we will go to work on the final issue of the Daily,” she said, her voice breaking. “We will close from Monday.”

Afterwards, journalists shook their heads and swapped memories as if at a wake. Even for those who had never worked there, the Cambodia Daily was a huge piece of Cambodia’s landscape: “a paper whose 24 years of daily editions will long serve as a first draft to modern Cambodian history,” as the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said in a statement. [Editor’s note: The writer is the president of the press club.]

Founded in 1993, the Daily was Cambodia’s first English-language daily. The Phnom Penh Post, which ran fortnightly, started publishing six days a week in 2008. The Khmer Times joined them in 2014.

“Until the recent closure of The Cambodia Daily, foreign-language newspapers enjoyed a significant degree of freedom,” says Sebastian Strangio, a journalist and author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.” “The situation was very different in the Khmer-language media, which for years has been under the tight control of the government.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen has often criticized the Daily and Radio Free Asia. At a May news conference, he scolded their Cambodian staff for working for “American” outlets.

“You work for Radio Free Asia, which is a radio against the government. And you write for Cambodia Daily, which opposes me all the time,” he said, as the Phnom Penh Post reported.

One last story

Sunday, Sept. 3 – the last working day for the Daily staff – started early. Really early.

Before 1 a.m., Phan Soumy picked up reports that Kem Sokha, leader of the CNRP, had been hauled off by security officials. Mr. Soumy and two other Daily reporters hotfooted it to Mr. Sokha’s house to be the first major independent news source to break the story.

Samrang Pring/Reuters
A woman buys the final issue of The Cambodia Daily newspaper at a store along a street in Phnom Penh on Sept. 4.

The politics editor, Ben Paviour, was not sleeping that night either.

“I checked our private messages at 4 a.m. and people were already out reporting [Sokha’s arrest], checking details and they were at the police station trying to uncover more facts,” he says. “The last day we worked flat out covering the developments; it was a collaborative effort representing the Daily at its best: scrappy and thorough.”

“It was all a blur and it was surreal,” Mr. Paviour says. “It didn’t feel like the end, but didn’t feel like a normal work day either. In some ways, we were relieved to have a big story to report so the focus wasn’t on us.”

Sokha was charged with treason on Sept. 5, with the government citing a 2013 video as evidence. In the clip, which was released by the government and published on YouTube – bookended with a few bars from John Lennon’s “Imagine” – Sokha talks about effecting grassroots change in Cambodia with American aid.

“Professors at universities in Washington, DC, Montreal, Canada [were] hired by the Americans to advise me on the strategy to change the dictator leader in Cambodia,” Sokha said in the video. The government says it shows he was conspiring to create a revolution with help from the United States.

One-party path?

International analysts, however, view the arrest as one more piece of a broad crackdown. “These are the latest tactics in a sweeping attack on voices that are critical of Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen and his allies,” the human rights watchdog Global Witness said in a Sept. 5 statement.

In a Sept. 6 speech to a large gathering of garment workers, Hun Sen alluded to Kem Sokha and warned of more arrests. “Earlier, I hesitated, when should I leave office? But after seeing the tragic event of the treasonous acts of a Khmer, who was arrested – and there might be some more [arrests] – I decided to continue my work 10 years more,” he said, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

If Mr. Sokha is convicted, he will be forced to resign his position or have his party dissolved, thanks to a law passed early this year. While 10 small parties also contested the local elections, none of them won more than 2 percent of the vote: meaning that, if the CNRP are dissolved, Cambodia would effectively become a one-party state.

“To brook dissent means to allow the existence of opposition; to allow the existence of a Fourth Estate which can hold the State accountable,” says Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Clearly, these things have been assaulted [and] mangled beyond recognition.”

Cambodia’s leaders are dependent on economic growth, Mr. Ou says, meaning that economic pressure could be a lever for change. “The leaders care about the economy and if that starts to be affected the crackdown will have to stop,” he says.

But it’s too late for some two dozen Daily staffers, particularly Cambodians. Aun Pheap, who won an award in June for exposing corruption in the logging industry, poses for a photograph at his desk.

The flash reflects off the white walls. “I have four children and I need to pay for their education,” he says. “I am concerned about my old age because everyone wants young people now.”

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