Human rights groups and former opposition officials have expressed concerns over the impact of the recent sale of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper to a Malaysian investor with historical ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Monday it was revealed that the Post, the last independent English-language daily newspaper in Cambodia, had been sold to Malaysian public relations tsar Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.
The sale and subsequent editorial interference from the new management prompted several senior Post staffers to resign, while Ganapathy ordered the editor-in-chief, Kay Kimsong, be fired for allowing the publication of an article detailing the new owner’s links to Hun Sen and his role as a “covert” public relations specialist who claimed to have helped Hun Sen into office.
Opposing the dismissal of Kimsong, Post reporters protested at the newspaper’s offices on Monday.
Am Sam Ath, head of the technical investigation unit at local rights group Licadho, said he regretted the turn of events because Post journalists had worked with “professionalism and a code of ethics”.
“We regret their dismissal and resignations. It’s vital for the people because they wrote independent news,” he said.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said he thought the treatment of the staff by the new management was a worrying sign for the future of the publication.
“If we look at the recent measures, the firing of the editor-in-chief, it’s worrying because of the dismissal ... seems to send a message to the staff and all reporters at the Post to be cautious... they can’t do something professionally. It’s worrying,” he said.
The Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper, was forced to close down after the government handed it an unpayable $6.3 million tax bill. The Post also received a large tax bill, for $3.9 million, shortly before the sale of the paper to Ganapathy.
In a statement on the sale, former owner Bill Clough, an Australian mining businessman, said the tax bill had been settled with the government.
Son Chhay, a former MP with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the closure of the Post and Daily, coupled with the shuttering of numerous radio stations that broadcast critical coverage of the Hun Sen regime, had stifled debate ahead of the July general election.
“If the Phnom Penh Post, which we always thought of as a newspaper offering publication without fear of favor, was sold to serve political interests, I think it’s a big regret and it will cause criticism of the media landscape in Cambodia,” he said.
Speaking to colleagues after his dismissal on Monday, Kimsong said: “If you love me, okay, maintain your professionalism. Be independent. Don’t be biased. That’s all this is about.”