Operated from a cramped newsroom in Phnom Penh, the Cambodia Daily has faced intimidation and lawsuits since it opened in the early 1990s.
On September 4, the Daily announced its closure after the government tax department handed it a $6.3 million bill for alleged unpaid back taxes in August.
For many, the closure of the paper after almost 25 years was heartbreaking and marked a dramatic attack on freedom of the press.
At a meeting of Daily alumni in Washington, DC, last week, Gretchen Peters, one of the paper’s first managing editors, said: “I am really heartbroken for Cambodia, not only because of the paper but in general.”
“I feel so strongly that it is important for democracy to continue in Cambodia, and that is what I am worried about,” added Molly Ball, who worked for the Daily between 2000 and 2002.
Some 12 journalists have been killed in Cambodia since 1994, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Another challenge in building freedom of the press was to instill a mentality that Cambodian journalists “have a right to go and ask tough questions,” said Peters.
The newspaper opened just two years after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed, ending Cambodia’s protracted civil war between remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the newly formed coalition of the Cambodian People’s Party and Funcinpec.
Douglas Gillison, who spent six years at the Daily from 2005 to 2011, explained how the paper’s staff had reported on this transition. “We traced stolen money. We exposed crimes. We were the chronicle of the transition from ashes of the civil war into a larger and more corrupt state, as the economy grew and as the means of power changed,” he said.
Ball said that working with Cambodian staff at the paper had given her a unique perspective.
“The reporters, particularly the Khmer reporters in Cambodia, are so much braver and are putting so much on the line than any Americans are,” she said.
The group of some 20 former Daily staff said they hope Cambodian journalists can continue the tradition of free media after the paper’s closure.
“I know how important it is to the functioning of any democratic government to have a free press. They just need to remember in their heart the importance of democracy and freedom of the press,” she said.
The Daily earned many loyal readers ranging from King Norodom Sihanouk to diplomats and business people and high-ranking members of the government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It was not just simply reporting and laying the groundwork for understanding reporting. It was contributing to Cambodia’s transition to democracy,” said Elizabeth Becker, a veteran reporter and author of “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.”
“It affects the Cambodian press corps because the Cambodia Daily was a wonderful way for Cambodian journalism to grow and develop,” she said.
The recent attacks on independent media in Cambodia came as no surprise to longtime Cambodia-watcher Nate Thayer, a freelance journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Cambodia Daily, and the Phnom Penh Post about Cambodia.
“That exposes how weak their political power is. They are afraid of free information and the truth from being transmitted to the population,” said Thayer.
“Information is primarily disseminated through social media. That is what the power of Cambodia’s future lies, bringing the truth to the people through social media,” said Thayer. “Hun Sen can’t stop social media.”
Today more than 4 million Cambodians have at least one Facebook account. Information is shared in a matter of seconds.
“It is not the end of the Cambodia Daily. I think it will come back in some format that probably gives the regime more trouble,” said Peters.
Peters said she would encourage young Cambodians to start their media business online, because “that would be something that Hun Sen and any other future leaders of Cambodia won’t be able to stop.”