The U.S. State Department has called on Cambodia to allow NGOs and independent media to continue their work in the country after Phnom Penh moved to close the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Cambodia Daily newspaper.
The NDI was told it must cease operations in Cambodia for continuing to conduct business despite not being granted official NGO registration since it applied last year.
The Cambodia Daily, an English-language local newspaper, was told earlier this week that it had until September 4 to pay $6 million it allegedly owes in back taxes, a figure the paper’s management disputes.
The moves against the media and civil society come just months ahead of a crucial national election where the opposition has a chance of winning the most votes.
Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said Washington was in talks with the government in the hope it would approach the disputes “in a fair fashion”.
"We encourage the government to allow NDI, The Cambodia Daily, and other independent media and civil society organizations to continue their important activities so that Cambodia’s 2018 national elections can take place in a free and open environment.
"What we do here each and every day ... is talk about not only free and fair elections and the importance of that, but the importance of free speech, including speech that can be uncomfortable to governments and nations.
“Our message won’t change. We care about freedom of the press; that’s not going to change."
The NDI has until August 30 to end operations in Cambodia and make arrangements for its staff to leave.
Nauert added that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had discussed the issue with his Cambodian counterpart last month while the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, William Heidt, had lobbied the tax department.
“A lot of our conversations we have are behind the scenes ... we conduct our diplomacy behind closed doors because in some countries that can be the most effective way of getting them to do things, so we will continue those conversations.”