Forced sale censorship
An investor close to the government buys the last independent newspaper. He fires the editor-in-chief after he makes a critical statement. Several issues of the Phnom Penh Post lie on top of each other
Because the Monday edition of the Phnom Penh Post reported on the new owner’s links with the prime minister, the editor-in-chief was fired. At the head of Cambodia’s last independent newspaper there have been worrying upheavals this week after a surprising sale of the sheet. The editor-in-chief and 13 editors-in-chief were fired or resigned out of solidarity after critically reporting on the sale of the Phnom Penh Post to a government-related investor.
The new owner of the newspaper, which is published in English and Khmer, has been Malaysian PR consultant Sivakumar Ganapathy, owner of Asia PR, since Saturday. His company boasts on its website the former cooperation with the Cambodian government of the authoritarian and since 1995 acting Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government-related newspaper Cambodia Times.
In Cambodia, a new parliament will be elected in two months’ time. The most promising opposition party, the CNRP, has already been banned. Important opposition members are in prison or have fled into exile.
Alleged tax debt forces sale
Founded in 1992, Phnom Penh Post had belonged to the Australian mining entrepreneur Bill Clough since 2008. But suddenly the paper was recently confronted by the authorities with an alleged tax debt of 3.9 million dollars.
This made many Cambodians sit up and take notice. The Cambodia Daily had already been closed last year after being confronted with an alleged tax debt of millions.
At the time, the authorities had not even bothered to look into the newspaper’s books or to break down their demands in detail. It was obviously about getting Cambodia Daily into trouble.
For Bill Clough’s post office, a kind of forced sale of the newspaper offered another way out. The newspaper changed hands for an unknown price. According to a statement by Clough, the tax debt was also paid.
Reporters from the paper, known for its investigative stories, wrote about the sudden sale of their newspaper and also researched the new owner’s links with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. They made the sensational report the lead story of the paper.
New owner immediately fires the editor-in-chief
But the new owner didn’t think it was a good idea. A lawyer appointed by him appeared in the editorial office and fired editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong. He had refused to withdraw the report, which he considered to be solidly written.
Sivakumar accused the authors of poor research, but did not give any details. At the moment, he cannot speak for the media at all. 23 editors defended the report in a public statement and Kay Kimsong’s decision to reprint it: “Our article was written in an attempt to maintain the transparency and integrity of our paper, as we have done in the last 25 years,” the reporters wrote on Monday.
A government spokesman has since succinctly stated that he was not aware of the events and that they were “normal business transactions”.
32 radio stations closed
“The Phnom Penh Post is now a sinking ship,” commented Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Cambodia’s government had already closed 32 radio stations last year that were not afraid to report critically.
Last year Cambodia lost 10 places in the press freedom ranking compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The country now ranks 142 out of 180 states. Of Cambodia’s former media landscape, “only rubble remains,” writes the organization in its latest annual report.
With an area of 181 035 km², the Kingdom of Cambodia is the smallest country in Indochina. It borders Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
Two thirds of Cambodia’s territory is occupied by the central lowlands, dominated by the Tonle Sab basin in the west and the alluvial plain of the Mekong in the east. The Great Lake (Tonle Sab) is the largest inland water body in Southeast Asia. In the dry season it is around 2,500 km², during the rainy season the area increases by up to 20,000 km² due to the backwatered water of the Mekong, which flows into the lake in the opposite direction to the river. The connection between the Great Lake and the Mekong is formed by the Tonle-Sab River.
The lowlands are surrounded by mountain ranges and plateaus: To the west and southwest is the Kardamom Mountains (Chuor Thnum Kravanh), with peaks over 1,700 metres high. To the north is the Dankrek Range (Khao Phanom Donkrak), a sandstone mountain range with heights of up to 800 m. The highest elevation of the country with 1 813 m is the Phnom Aural east of the Kardamom Mountains. To the south of this peak lies the Elephant Mountains (Chuor Phnum Damrei), which reach heights of up to 1,100 metres. In the east of Cambodia, the foothills of the Annamitic Coastal Cordillera rise.
The most important river in the country is the Mekong, which rises in the highlands of Tibet and flows into the South China Sea. With a total length of 4,200 km, the Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, and some 500 km flow through Cambodian territory. The capital Phnom Penh lies at the mouth of the river Tonle Sab into the Mekong.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy according to the constitution of 1993. The head of state is the elected king (Norodom Sihamoni, since October 2004), who primarily performs representative functions. The executive power lies with the prime minister (Hun Sen, since November 1998); he is usually the representative of the strongest party in the National Assembly.
The legislature exercises the two-chamber parliament, which consists of the National Assembly with 123 seats (deputies are elected by the people for five years) and the Senate with 61 seats (two members are appointed by the King, two by the National Assembly; the rest are elected by parliamentarians and municipal councils for six years).
The highest legal authority is the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh. The Cambodian legal system is a mixture of French law, royal decrees and customary law; some regulations of communist rule have also been preserved. Cambodia is divided into 24 provinces.
1999 was Cambodia’s first year in three decades in which no fighting took place. In line with decades of civil war, Cambodia’s economy and infrastructure are underdeveloped and the supply situation is poor. One fifth of the population lives in poverty. Despite international intervention, the black trade in precious woods and drugs is flourishing. Human trafficking (the sale of children and women into prostitution) has not yet been stopped.
Nevertheless, the economy has not only stabilised since the end of the 1990s, but has also achieved high growth rates. Cambodia became the tenth member of the Southeast Asian Association of Nations (ASEAN); ASEAN’s free trade agreement came into force in 2002. The growth is mainly due to increasing tourism and textile exports; stagnation on the world market in the clothing sector, however, gives reason to fear a decline in profits.
Agriculture accounts for more than one third of the gross domestic product (GDP), and more than half of the total workforce works in this sector. The main crop – now also for export – is rice, which is grown on 80% of the agricultural land. Three harvests per year are possible in the central lowlands. Other important crops are rubber, corn, manioc, soya and fruit (bananas, pineapples, mangos). Forestry accounts for a large share of the export volume (precious woods). Both the Great Lake (Tonle Sab) and the Mekong are extremely rich in fish, and fishing is primarily used to provide for the population itself.
The industry in Cambodia is only weakly developed and is mainly limited to small businesses, where mainly textiles and handicrafts are produced or food is processed. Industry contributes about a quarter of GDP. Phosphate, bauxite, tin and precious stones are mined from mineral resources. Exports are mainly to the USA and China; the main suppliers of imported goods (crude oil, food and beverages, machinery and vehicles as well as medicines) are China, Vietnam and Thailand.
Of a total of 28 000 km of road, only 2000 km is asphalted. Now there are no passenger trains, only freight trains. Regular international direct flights to Cambodia take place practically only within the region, e.g. via Bangkok (Thailand). Currency is the Riel (= 100 Sen).