PHNOM PENH —
Every weekday morning since she opened her roadside newsstand in the mid-1990s, Sreymom* would take a delivery of the pint-sized Cambodia Daily. But this Monday morning was different.
“They said the Daily would only be published on Monday, as the last day. No more after today. No more publication,” she said.
On Sunday, the Daily announced it was closing after more than 24 years of reporting. Its closure came amid a standoff with the country’s tax agency, which in early August issued the paper with a $6.3 million bill for allegedly unpaid back taxes.
The campaign to stop the paper’s closure failed and Prime Minister Hun Sen labeled the Daily the country’s “chief thief” for its alleged tax evasion.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press,” the Daily said in its statement on Sunday.
At her newsstand in Daun Penh district, Sreymom said the Daily’s closure meant a dent in her daily earnings as she sold about 70 copies of the paper each day. “With its closure, I lose hope and feel empty because the newspaper is closed and VOA radio is also banned,” she said, referring to government moves to close radio stations that broadcast VOA and Radio Free Asia programming.
“I want it to be reopened for our people to read and to understand and for the enhancement of their knowledge.”
The closure of the highly-regarded English-language newspaper came at an uncertain time in Cambodian politics. The ruling Cambodian People’s party has expelled democracy promotion outfit the National Democratic Institute (NDI), targeted independent radio stations, a crucial source of information for rural Cambodians, and arrested the leader of the opposition on questionable charges.
In its final edition on Monday, which sold out in record time, according to vendors, the Daily pulled no punches, leading with a quote suggesting Cambodia was descending into “outright dictatorship”.
Bernard Krisher, the paper’s former owner who handed control of the Daily to his daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele, in April, said the charges were “the regime’s thuggish attempt to disable our operations in haste.”
Jodie DeJonge, the Daily’s editor-in-chief since April, said the loss of the paper would be felt “very acutely”.
“We wish we could continue, and we think you deserve better, and we’re sorry that we are not going to be here after [Monday].”
While the United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom issued strongly worded statements about the closure of the Daily, the country’s numerous journalist associations remained largely silent. Only the Club of Cambodian journalists issued a public statement, saying the Daily’s owners should “seek a compromise” with the tax department.
However, soon after the paper announced its closure, the tax department issued a travel ban on the Daily’s management until the alleged tax bill was paid. The paper’s general manager, Douglas Steele, remains in the country.
Sok Eysan, a ruling party spokesman, said the Cambodian People’s Party regretted the closure of the Daily, adding that the dispute was “technical” and claiming there was not a political motive behind the pressure. “If they just paid the tax bill, they could continue. This is technical stuff,” he said.
Moeun Chhean Narridh, a media expert, said the closure of the Daily could encourage self-censorship among other journalists in Cambodia.
“When freedom of a journalist or media organization is threatened, other journalists and media outlets should also be worried because, sooner or later, such pressures will also come to them,” he said.
Political observer Noan Sereiboth said that another outcome could be that “some sensitive stories will go unreported due to the fact that a number of other news outlets are unable to do it.”
Judith Clarke, a journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the media field could now be open for pro-ruling party media to prepare the ground for next year’s general election.
“However, given the strength of the measures taken against both press and opposition, there could be a public backlash that costs the government its popularity,” she added.
Elizabeth Becker, a veteran reporter and Cambodia expert, said the closure of the Daily meant that the government would be able to “spread lies and propaganda” more easily.
“Again this is old fashioned government censorship and repression. The Hun Sen regime is moving to silence all independent voices in the media and politics. It is far worse than the label post-truth,” she added.
*Sreymom said she was ‘too scared’ to speak with her full name.
(Disclosure: Reporter of this story was briefly a reporting intern at The Cambodia Daily back in 2015)