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Cambodia Daily closes down after 24 years amid $6.3m government tax row

One of Cambodia’s last independent and English-language newspapers is to publish its final edition today after being handed an “astronomical” tax bill by the national government.

The Cambodia Daily has announced it will cease its publication run after 24 years due to “extra-legal threats by the Cambodian government” over a US$6.3 million tax bill.

The move will leave Cambodia with one final remaining daily English-language title, The Phnom Penh Post.  Under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration, other independent media outlets – including the United States government-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America – have also faced accusations of not paying their tax bills.

According to Chad Williams, former Cambodia Daily foreign editor and former The Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief, much of the Cambodian Khmer-language media outlets are “very skewed towards the government” and are owned by people with “deep government connections”. As a result, the English-language titles remain an increasingly rare critical voice in Cambodia, he told Mumbrella Asia in a recent interview.

Commenting on the closure, the-now Coconuts editor-in-chief added: “What the Daily and its competitor The Phnom Penh Post have been doing for roughly 25 years now – reporting on the government in a traditionally adversarial style – is something of a marvel.

“On some level, there’s always been a keen awareness that what the papers were doing was a tightrope act, that the reporting on corruption, deforestation, contested election results was being done at the pleasure of a government that allowed them to exist for its own reasons.

“All eyes now turn to The Phnom Penh Post, which will no doubt be under tremendous pressure in the months to come. I have every confidence that the reporters and editors there will keep carrying the torch for press freedom in Cambodia. But just how long they’ll be allowed to do so is another question.”

Founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher 14 years after the downfall of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, the Cambodia Daily had an editorial team of local and foreign journalists covering national stories, including those related to government corruption and human rights abuses.

In April this year, Krisher’s daughter and deputy publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele purchased the company’s assets and took over ownership. However, the newspaper said in a statement that “the company will revert those assets to Mr. Krisher and seek dissolution”.

It continued:

“The company will revert those assets to Mr. Krisher and seek dissolution. Mr Krisher flatly asserts that the way he operated The Cambodia Daily was lawful and invites the Government of Cambodia to prosecute him if it believes otherwise. If charged, Mr. Krisher will return to Cambodia.

“There may well be a legitimate dispute between the tax department and the owners of the Daily over when tax became collectable and in what amount. In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations. Instead, the Daily has been targeted with an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding.”

The statement concluded by saying: “The Cambodia Daily, like every English-language newspaper here, operates at a loss. It has continued because it operates on a shoestring and the Krisher family has been willing to absorb those losses in order to help Cambodia create a free press and a tradition of independent journalism.”

In an article covering the newspaper’s closure, rival The Phnom Penh Post wrote: “The Daily’s impact was certainly not lost on the Post, where every morning reporters and editors make a beeline to grab the morning copy of their cross-town rivals. The ritual of perusing the Daily for scoops or exclusives was not just an act of self-flagellation; it was also an acknowledgement that a vibrant and competitive press strengthened independent journalism in the Kingdom.”

Since the announcement, the hashtag #savethedaily has started trending on Twitter.

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