Fears as Cambodia’s ‘last independent’ newspaper sold to Malaysian investor

The new owner says that he is committed to upholding the newspaper’s legacy but would also review its operations to “enhance” financial and editorial independence

PHNOM PENH: A newspaper hailed as Cambodia’s last independent English daily has been sold by its Australian publisher to a Malaysian investor, rattling a journalist community battered by the country’s authoritarian premier ahead of elections.

Bill Clough, the chairman of the 26-year-old Phnom Penh Post, said in a statement on Saturday that the paper had been purchased by a Malaysian investor identified solely as “Sivakumar G”.

The statement, which did not disclose the price of the sale, described the new owner as a “well-respected newspaper man” who has an “experienced journalist background, and represents a strong investment group from Malaysia”.

The new owner said in a statement that he was committed to upholding the newspaper’s legacy but would also review its operations to “enhance” financial and editorial independence.

The sale, which caught staff by surprise, swiftly raised concerns about a contracting space for independent media in a country that lost its other main English newspaper last year.

The Post’s chief rival, the Cambodia Daily, was forced to shut in August 2017 after it was handed an unpayable tax bill — the same day authorities arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges.

Both events came amid a sweeping government crackdown on independent media, NGOs and rival politicians ahead of July polls that strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen is determined to win.

“The Post is really the last remaining newspaper that comes out every day and does long investigations on corruption, illegal logging and politics,” said Abby Seiff, a Cambodia-based freelance journalist and former Phnom Penh Post editor.

“The journalist community is concerned about what the implication (of the sale) could be. It’s just two months until the election and there’s not much independent media left,” she added.

In his statement, former owner Clough acknowledged that “turbulence” in Cambodia ahead of elections had put a spotlight on the Phnom Penh Post and left it as “the last remaining truly independent media group in the country”.

In addition to the closure of the Cambodia Daily, last year’s crackdown saw dozens of radio stations taken off the air and the jailing of two reporters from Radio Free Asia, which shut its bureau after 20 years due to a series of legal threats.

Cambodia fell 10 spots in this year’s media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, which described the country has hosting a “climate of terror that has drastically curtailed press freedom”.

In recent months local media had reported that the Phnom Penh Post was facing tax troubles.

Clough’s statement said “publicised tax claims” with the government had been settled last week and that paper now faces “no threat to its ability to continue its work”.

The Post, founded by American journalist Michael Hayes in 1992, is seen as a key pillar of the country’s fragile democracy, which observers say has taken a nosedive in recent years as Hun Sen clears out opposition politicians and other critical voices.

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