Cambodia's 'last truly independent' newspaper sold to Malaysian

A Cambodian vendor reads the Phnom Penh Post newspaper in Phnom Penh on May 7, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

PHNOM PENH (REUTERS) - Cambodian English-language daily The Phnom Penh Post was bought by a Malaysian investor, its chairman said on Saturday (May 5), amid concerns that the sale could signal the end of independent media in the country ahead of elections in July.

The news comes amid an ongoing crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his allies against perceived critics, including opposition politicians, independent media and human rights groups ahead of the vote.

Mr Bill Clough, chairman of Post Media Ltd, publisher of The Phnom Penh Post, said in a statement the company had been sold to a little-known Malaysian investor, Mr Sivakumar G.

The paper's former editor-in-chief, Mr Chad Williams, said the government may have coerced the sale.

Founded in 1992, the Phnom Penh Post was reportedly slapped with a US$5 million (S$6.67 million) tax bill last year, according to reports by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

"From the outside looking in, the most troubling thing is the timing of the tax bill's settlement and the Post's subsequent sale. The odds of them not being connected seem incredibly remote," Mr Williams told Reuters.

"That's troubling because it suggests the Cambodian government may have used the threat of a shutdown to essentially coerce the sale," he said.

In his statement, Mr Clough said the tax issue had been resolved and a court decision to confiscate the newspaper's assets has been cancelled until an appeal is finished.

Describing Mr Sivakumar G. as "a well respected newspaper man", he blamed the sale on declining advertising revenues.

"The recent times have been a challenge, as the worldwide decline in market share for newspaper advertising has also been felt here in Cambodia," Mr Clough said.

However, he said, the paper had been under a spotlight before the election "as the last remaining truly independent media group in the country".

Cambodia Daily, another English-language paper, was shut down last year after it was given a month by the government to settle a US$6.3 million tax bill.

Mr Hun Sen is almost certain to win the election after the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court last year at the request of Mr Hun Sen's party.

Mr Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, denied the accusation about the sale of The Phnom Penh Post.

"It is a normal business, and it remains a newspaper," he told Reuters.

And in a statement, Mr Sivakumar G., said he would uphold the newspaper's legacy and independence.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.