A newspaper widely seen as the last bastion of a free press in Cambodia has been sold to a Malaysian investor with ties to Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial prime minister, Hun Sen, in a move that is seen as a further slide toward authoritarianism.
The English-language Phnom Penh Post reported the sale on Sunday to the investor, Sivakumar Ganapathy, chief executive of a public relations firm that has reportedly worked for Hun Sen, with a divisive general election looming in July.
Several staff have left saying its new owners fired the editor-in-chief and demanded a story be removed, amid a series of steps to gag the independent media.
Bill Clough, an Australian former owner, confirmed the sale, blaming falling advertising revenue.
He identified the buyer as a “well-respected newspaper man” and said an outstanding tax bill had been cleared under the deal.
Media outlets that had often reported on corruption and human-rights abuses involving Hun Sen’s administration have been disappearing in the last year.
On Monday Post staff said the editorial chief Kay Kimsong had been fired and others had resigned or been sacked. Staff said they had been ordered to take an article about the paper’s sale offline.
Brendan O’Byrne tweeted: “After being ordered to remove my story regarding the sale of the Phnom Penh Post from the website by new management, I refused and offered my resignation, which was accepted. I wish the fantastic journalists at The Post all the best.”
Ananth Baliga also tweeted: “The new owner of the @phnompenhpost ordered us to take down the article detailing the sale of the newspaper. I will not be returning to work at the Post. I am devastated at the prospect of not being able to work everyday with the some of best journalists I know. I wish them well.”
The article included several quotes raising concerns about the new ownership, including that Ganapathy’s agency, Asia PR, listed “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the government seat” as one of its clients.
Managing editor Stuart White issued a statement saying: “I resigned this morning because I was asked to take down The Post’s story on its sale
“I wasn’t given a reason, and was only informed that it was a direct order from new management. At that point, I felt as though I couldn’t continue working at the paper.
“The Post has always been fiercely protective of its independence, and I felt that the order was a sign that that may be in jeopardy going forward. I can’t comment on the new management’s overall editorial direction, but that decision was ultimately unacceptable to me.”
The Cambodia Daily was forced to close last year after it received a US$6.3-million tax bill that the tiny, independent operation could not pay.
The US-funded Radio Free Asia recently closed its bureau citing a “relentless crackdown” on its independence.
Cambodian elections tend to shake up the domestic scene. Picture credit: YouTube