BILL CLOUGH, an Australian mining mogul, bought the Phnom Penh Post, a daily newspaper published in English in Cambodia’s capital, just over a decade ago. He held onto it despite steady losses. Then came a sudden tax bill of at least $3.9m last year. On May 5th Mr Clough threw in the towel and sold. The Post’s new owner, Sivakumar Ganapathy, is an executive at Asia Public Relations Consultants (APRC), a Malaysian firm which once worked on behalf of the Cambodian government. On May 7th he demanded that an article about his purchase of the paper be removed from its website. A series of journalists refused, which led to the firing of the editor and the resignation of 13 more staff in protest (including a former intern at The Economist).
Ly Tayseng, a lawyer representing Mr Ganapathy, says the new owner wanted the article removed because it contained errors. Moreover, Mr Ly points out, APRC had stopped working for the Cambodian government years before Mr Ganapathy joined. “The reporters they believe that they are independent,” he says, but “the article was very negative.” Erin Handley, one of the journalists who has resigned, says the management would not discuss their grievances fully.
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The standoff speaks to larger political tensions. In September the government forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, the Post’s main rival, by presenting it with a colossal tax bill. It also switched off dozens of radio frequencies on which American news services were broadcast.
Repression has ratcheted up ahead of an election slated for July 29th. Hun Sen, the country’s leader for 33 years, will win in a contest that is set to be neither free nor fair. In September the president of the main opposition force, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested for treason. In November the CNRP itself was abolished after the Supreme Court conveniently agreed with the government that it was a hive of foreign plots. Eleven of its members wait to hear whether their convictions for “insurrection”, which could lead to 20 years in prison in some instances, will be upheld on appeal.
In such an environment the fate of the Phnom Penh Post attracts keen attention. If its output is sanitised Cambodia will be left with few sources of independent reporting. At least one bolder monthly magazine survives, as do critical blogs and websites, but they are dwarfed by the might of Fresh News, an online government mouthpiece, and television stations which fawn over Mr Hun Sen. Around half of Cambodians own a smartphone and social-media platforms serve them news in English and Khmer; many living in rural areas still depend on the radio. All will now suffer from a dearth of independent reporting.