One of Cambodia’s major English-language newspapers will close this week because it is unable to pay what the government says it owes in back taxes.
In a statement released Sunday, The Cambodia Daily says “as a result of extra-legal threats by the government,” the paper will stop publication on Monday, Sept. 4. That’s the deadline the government gave the paper when it slapped it with a $6.3 million tax bill last month, accusing it of failing to pay that amount in taxes over the past decade. The fine came as a result of an investigation Prime Minister Hun Sen called for into private companies operating in Cambodia.
The Daily has been operating legally in the country since its founding in 1993 by American journalist, Bernard Krisher.
“The allegations of theft are unfounded and defamatory,” said Deborah Krisher-Steele, daughter of the founder and the paper’s deputy publisher, in a statement.
Jodie DeJonge, the editor-in-chief, told NPR that they couldn’t pay the enormous tax bill and that they’d asked for a formal audit, but never received one. Both the paper and the publisher argue that this really has nothing to do with taxes and more to do with Hun Sen trying to curb dissent ahead of the general elections next year.
Journalists and media watchers across the region, some of them alums of the paper, reacted to the closing with heartfelt messages.
This is not the first time Hun Sen has gone after the media and The Daily directly. Over the last 30 some years of his reign, the paper has unabashedly held the former Khmer Rouge commander’s feet to the fire in both English and Khmer.
But the strongman has no plans to relinquish that power anytime soon, and when the opposition party did better than expected during June’s local elections, Hun Sen started cracking down on dissent and free speech.
In fact, The Daily‘s final major story was to break news that the leader of the opposition party had been arrested on charges of treason.
Last month, the government ordered the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute to close and has also gone after Cambodian radio stations. The Khmer-language arms of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America have also been sent tax notices.
Human rights advocates have strongly rebuked Hun Sen’s actions.
Steven Butler, the Asia program director for the Committee to Project Journalists, says what’s happening in Cambodia is an example of a time of “depressed free expression” Southeast Asia is going through right now.
“I know it’s absolutely true that press freedom has come under pressure in many countries,” Butler says. He says the way China tightly controls its Internet and the press, as well as the way the United States is not speaking out in favor of speech right now, may be to blame.
Butler says losing The Daily is not just a little setback in the long-term war journalists are fighting, but that the struggle for freedom of expression will continue.