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Foreign Journalists Quit as The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia, Fired The Top Editor

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

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Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.
Foreign Journalists Quit in protest at The Phnom Penh Post, VOA

All but a handful of foreign journalists on staff at The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s last remaining independent daily newspaper, resigned on Wednesday. Citing differences over the meaning of “editorial independence,” they quit within days after new owners fired its editor-in-chief who refused to remove a published article from the website linking the new owner of the paper to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The resignations mean only a few foreign journalists in the newsroom when the paper was sold remain with the Post. The English-language newspaper, which had employed Cambodian and foreign journalists since its founding in 1992, was known for a feisty voice often critical of the government and well-connected economic interests.

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.

Sivakumar’s public relations firm lists Hun Sen as a client. Sivakumar has not responded to requests for comment from Voice of America, which has tried to reach him since the sale of the Post was announced Sunday. Sivakumar issued a statement dated May 6 refuting links to Hun Sen, calling the reporting “totally untrue and cannot be concluded based on what took place between the PR firm and the client more than 25 years ago.”

Fears of crackdown

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner.

“I doubt the Post will continue to be the fearlessly independent press it has been for 26 years,” Erin Handley, a former Post reporter told the VOA Khmer Service in an email exchange. “My resignation is a decision I did not take lightly, but on an emotional level it feels like I am betraying my Khmer colleagues, who I am so incredibly proud of.”

The sale of the Post and the subsequent upheaval comes amid concerns over the government’s crackdown on the press and critics in the run up to a general election set for July 29. Hun Sen and his party are expected to win, having dissolved the main opposition party in November.

The Post had come under pressure in recent months following the closure of its rival English-language daily, The Cambodia Daily, which was hit with a hefty tax bill. The Post was also handed a tax bill to the tune of $3.9 million, which was settled ahead of the sale, according to a statement from Clough.

Son Chhay, a former MP with the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the closure of the Daily and the sale of the Post, coupled with the quieting of numerous radio stations that broadcast critical coverage of the Hun Sen regime, had stifled debate ahead of the July general election.

“If The Phnom Penh Post, which we always thought of as a newspaper offering publication without fear or favor, was sold to serve political interests, I think it’s a big regret and it will cause criticism of the media landscape in Cambodia,” he said.

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner
Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, VOA

Press freedom, timing of sale

In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded the crackdown on media freedom in Cambodia, which fell 10 places and is now ranked 142 out of 180 countries.

“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,” the paper’s former editor-in-chief, Chad Williams, told Reuters Sunday.

“That’s troubling because it suggests the Cambodian government may have used the threat of a shutdown to essentially coerce the sale,” Williams said.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), rejected the allegations of government influence in the sale.

“It’s a selling and buying. They made a bilateral contact. The government didn’t interfere with this,” he said.

‘My trade is journalism’

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

He refused.

Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.

A lawyer for Sivakumar, identified by the Post on Tuesday as Ly Tayseng, a Cambodian, said the new editor-in-chief, identified as Joshua Purushotman, would vet articles in future editions. According to LinkedIn, Purushotman spent a decade working in PR.

The Post reported Tayseng said that the article on the sale was ordered removed because it “damaged our reputation” and declined to discuss the alleged inaccuracies in detail.

“According to the new owner, he thinks that I have made a huge mistake,” Kimsong said. “They think the article should not have been published.”

“My trade is journalism and I don’t know what else to do,” he told VOA Khmer. “There are two options — one is that if I can’t go back to newspapers, I will just sell fried noodles.”

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.
Phnom Penh Post’s office, VOA

Loss of independence

In a staff meeting, Tayseng and Purushotman said Kimsong’s firing was a money-saving business move as the new owners had hired a new top editor, and only wanted to pay one, according to the Post’s own story.

Chhay Channyda, chief of staff at the Post, said she was concerned by the possible loss of independence under the new management.

“This is what we worry about because on the first day when there is a new boss or new company, they came to ask us to remove an article that we wrote,” she said.

Yon Sineat, a reporter, said she saw the takeover as a “serious threat to press freedom.”

“We are concerned that we will not be able to fully practice our journalism or write to reflect the truth,” she said.

Tipping point

For many of the foreign journalists, the tipping point was when “the article, which outlined our new publisher’s company’s previous business and government connections, was taken down, and despite our protests, it didn’t seem like it would go back up,” Handley, the former Post reporter told the VOA. “That appeared to be a breach of our editorial independence and … (it) became increasingly clear that the editorial staff and the new management had irreconcilable ideas about what editorial independence’ entails.”

Handley told VOA that while “I can’t speak for my Khmer colleagues, only my own impressions, but I think there was despair and hopelessness in the newsroom, and perhaps a sense of resignation or inevitability.”

Handley said the foreign and Cambodian journalists supported each other.

“There are few stories non-Cambodians could report solo — we rely on them and they are key,” she wrote. “So I don’t pretend arrogance — the loss of non-Cambodian staff sends a message, but it is important to bear in mind that non-Cambodian reporters can afford to be a lot more cavalier. However, the resignation of all foreign news staff sends the message that there are consequences for trying to undermine the intelligent, in depth and independent ethos of our masthead.”

In the run-up to the July 29 national elections, Cambodia’s independent press is “in ruins,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

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The 24-year-old Cambodia Daily published its last edition September 4 with the headline “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.” Days later, Radio Free Asia, which like the Voice of America is based in Washington and operates under the auspices of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, closed its Phnom Penh news bureau because of similar pressure over a tax bill.

Two former RFA reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with espionage in another case in November. They were denied bail recently.

Aun Pheap, a veteran Cambodian journalist, has been granted refugee status by the United Nations’ refugee agency and has fled to the United States, fearing arrest on charges related to reporting before the June 2017 local elections. (VOA)

Next Story

Human Rights in Cambodia Concludes on Note: Peace Without Justice is Unsustainable

I think there are a number of areas which the government is working towards in basic human rights, and there are a number of areas that I have identified and discussed with the government to vet human rights and also to increase in hand the number of indicators and targets and plans for meeting the development goals.

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UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith (L) speaks to reporters at a press conference in Phnom Penh, May 9, 2019. RFA

Rhona Smith, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, concluded her seventh visit to the Southeast Asian nation on Thursday with a list of recommendations for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of ways to improve human rights and make the country’s political space more inclusive. She advised the government to identify those most at risk of being left behind by development efforts, called for protections of the right to peaceful assembly and association, and urged authorities to avoid excessive use of force in the policing of assemblies. Smith also called for the release of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha from detention, where he has been held while under investigation for “treason,” general legal reforms to ensure that all Cambodians have access to justice, and a greater operating space for civil society.

Despite her comprehensive investigation into the situation of human rights in Cambodia, government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed her recommendations as politically motivated, calling the fate of Kem Sokha a matter of the court and suggesting that NGOs in the country are “serving political purposes.” Smith spoke to RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday about her visit and discussed how the country’s government can better safeguard rights for all Cambodians.

RFA: My first question is about your impression or observation regarding the [request] to visit Kem Sokha. Would you have any kind of statement to make regarding this again?

Smith: I regret that I was unable to get permission in order to go and meet with … Kem Sokha and the investigating judge was not able to meet with me either.

RFA: What would be your purpose of visiting him, should you be allowed to meet him?

Smith: I’m an independent expert appointed by the human rights council. I should be able to meet with persons in detention anywhere in Cambodia.

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I welcome some of the indications of openness and willingness, for example, to engage with civil society to try to address access to justice and to redress some of the problems I’ve identified with corruption and bribery. Pixabay

RFA: Do you think that Kem Sokha will be released any time soon?

Smith: In my view, Kem Sokha remains under detention and I’ve called upon the government and, indeed, the investigating judge to express my hope that Kem Sokha’s investigation is swiftly completed. It’s now been more than 18 months and either the trial can proceed or if there’s no … evidence for a trial, then the charges against him are definitively dropped.

RFA: Recently during your visit, the Battambang Court issued at least 26 warrants for 26 CNRP officials to appear before the court regarding their political activities. Do you think this is a breach of human rights in Cambodia amid your visit?

Smith: I believe it’s indicative of the lack of political space in Cambodia and I have concerns in that regard. And it is my hope that there will be a new opening for political culture in Cambodia based on dialogue and mutual respect.

RFA: Regarding these CNRP officials, of course, after the CNRP dissolution in late 2017, and also the reallocation of the seats of those elected commune councilors—5,007 commune councilors had to relinquish their positions to the ruling party and other parties—have you seen any progress in the democratic space in Cambodia since your last visit?

Smith: I see no tangible changes to the political space in Cambodia since my last visit.

RFA: In your last report in August, you made several recommendations—a lot of which concerned the freedom and human rights situation. During this visit, have you noticed any significant change or improvement based on those recommendations?

Smith: In most of the government meetings I have had, the government minister has taken time to update me on the changes that have been made since my last visit in their area of responsibility and also on responses to my recommendations.

RFA: So are you satisfied or, at least, what is your impression regarding these responses?

Smith: I think that there has been improvement in some areas of human rights in Cambodia since my last visit, and I welcome some of the indications of openness and willingness, for example, to engage with civil society to try to address access to justice and to redress some of the problems I’ve identified with corruption and bribery.

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If they work on pursuing the development goals, that will help embed human rights principles and provide targets and indicators that could be ambitious for the government to work towards and, in doing so, that would strengthen human rights … for everyone. Pixabay

RFA: Back to what you have indicated, time and again, that peace and prosperity are in line with human rights, respect and democracy. Do you still maintain this position?

Smith: Yes, it is still my view that peace without justice is unsustainable and development without freedoms will risk leaving people behind.

Also Read: World Gold Council Explains Why Indians Consider Gold Still The Best Security

RFA: What would be your call for the government of Cambodia to do now, based on what you feel are the priorities during this visit?

Smith: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think there are a number of areas which the government is working towards in basic human rights, and there are a number of areas that I have identified and discussed with the government to vet human rights and also to increase in hand the number of indicators and targets and plans for meeting the development goals. If they work on pursuing the development goals, that will help embed human rights principles and provide targets and indicators that could be ambitious for the government to work towards and, in doing so, that would strengthen human rights … for everyone. (RFA)