PHNOM PENH • One of Cambodia's most stridently independent newspapers, The Cambodia Daily, published its last edition yesterday with the headline "Descent Into Outright Dictatorship" as it closed amid a crackdown on critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The English-language paper had been given a deadline of one month to pay US$6.3 million (S$8.6 million) for years of back taxes, which the publication disputed and described as "astronomical".
Its final front page led with the arrest on Sunday of Cambodia's main opposition leader, Mr Kem Sokha, who was accused of treason in a significant escalation of the campaign against Mr Hun Sen's opponents.
The paper also reported on its own closure. "We have been a burr in Hun Sen's side for the entire time that we have been operating," said its American editor-in-chief, Ms Jodie DeJonge. "This paper takes special pride in writing about some of the toughest issues," she said, as journalists polished their final articles and office workers packed up.
The paper printed only a few thousand copies a day but had a reputation for breaking news about sensitive topics such as graft, waste, environmental issues and land rights.
Mr Hun Sen defended the deadline given to the paper, saying it had to pay tax the same as any other business. "When they didn't pay and we asked them to leave the country, they said we are a dictatorship," he said.
The pro-government Fresh News website quoted the tax authorities as saying the tax bill stands even if the paper shuts down and that whoever is responsible at the publication would be barred from leaving Cambodia until the money is paid.
Independent media, opposition politicians and rights activists have been among casualties of a widening crackdown ahead of polls next year in which Mr Hun Sen, 65, could face his toughest challenge in his more than three decades in power.
During his rule Cambodia has been transformed from a failed state after the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, in which he was once a soldier. But disaffection has been growing, and the opposition increased its share of the vote in local elections held in June.
Until recently, Cambodia has had a relatively free media compared with its neighbours such as communist Vietnam and army-ruled Thailand. "When The Cambodia Daily is shut down, it means press freedom in Cambodia is finished," said 35-year-old Chhorn Chansy, a news editor on the paper. It employed more than 30 journalists, about half of whom were foreigners.
Eighteen radio stations were also ordered off the air last month, and local radio stations have been stopped from leasing time to the United States-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
The Cambodia Daily was founded by American journalist Bernard Krisher in 1993.