Cambodia’s Worrying War on Free Speech

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Cambodia’s Worrying War on Free Speech

The Hun Sen government is attempting to do through legal means what it had once done through violence.

This month, we learned, initially from a leak by the Cambodian government’s defacto mouthpiece, Fresh News, that the English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily is being investigated for tax avoidance. Clearly, the government is now trying to do through legal means what it once did with violence: limit free speech in Cambodia.

On August 5, the Finance Ministry’s general tax department announced the Daily would have to pay $6.3 million. It has been given until September 4 to come up the money. If it cannot, the government will start “foreclosure of the company” that now owns the Daily and, then, it will close the newspaper. I have it on good authority that it will most likely close. And some say it is just the beginning. One assumes the accountants of the Phnom Penh Post, another English-language newspaper, have been busy in recent weeks.

This has naturally led to international criticism, including by the United States and European Union. A recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post and written by my old colleague Holly Robertson summed up the current mood when she described it as “open season on the press in Cambodia.” And, naturally, a Twitter hashtag – #savethedaily – has become a popular method of online protest.

But however wretched it is that the Daily will soon close, the Cambodian government’s efforts to silence Khmer-language media outlets – Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA) and Voice for Democracy (VOD) – are arguably far more threatening to free speech. In recent weeks, dozens of independent radio stations have had their licenses revoked or ordered to close. The government says they have violated contracts for “overselling” airtime to these outlets, or did not properly register with the right authorities. On August 29, a spokesman for the two media outlets told the media that all radio stations carrying their broadcasts outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, have been closed.

Granted, fewer Cambodians receive their news from the radio than in previous decades. A report last year found that roughly 15% of Cambodians use the airwaves for news-gathering, down from 39% in 2013, and significantly fewer than the number of Cambodians who use the Internet for news. But one has to assume that 15% is a much higher percentage than the number of Cambodians who gleam news from the English-language newspapers.

Analysts are clear about the reasons for this. As they have told me in recent weeks, the government wants to silence its critics before next year’s vitally important general election, which some say the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) might lose. “Spooked, the authorities began ramping up their attacks on independent media outlets earlier this year as well as pressuring individual reporters,” Robertson wrote.

Indeed, all of this comes as the government has closed several NGOs in recent months, ordered the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded democracy-promoting organization, to leave the country, along with its staff, and appears to readying itself to finally take down the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party.

Still, the Cambodian government’s latest methods are hardly novel. The Russian government started using taxation to close politically-active NGOs and newspapers from 2013 onward. Many other autocratic states – including Hungary, China and Egypt, to name but some – are now using similar tactics to silence critics. Quite clearly, we are now witnessing are free speech pangs in Cambodia, a country that up until a few months had a relatively free press – though relative only to the likes of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Only time will tell whether the closure of the Daily and the silencing of Khmer-language media outlets like RFA and VOA are simply deterrents, aimed at silencing critical voices before next year’s election, or a genuine sweeping away of what free speech is left in the country.

But returning to the Cambodia Daily’s closure, a few points ought to be made. Let us begin with some criticisms of the newspaper that can be plucked from the Phnom Penh grapevine, and which have been argued over in private conversations for weeks. If, as the Daily says, it provides training for young Cambodian journalists, which it has used to justify its past NGO status, then it probably shouldn’t have erected a paywall on its website. The Phnom Penh Post has refrained from monetizing online readership, and it doesn’t make such claims about being a teaching institute.

Moreover, since the Daily has a long and proud history of writing about the nefariousness of the government, it might have expected the government to strike at its weakest point, which happens to be its finances. The management no doubt bears some responsibility for leaving itself open to such attacks.

However, even if all of these criticisms are correct it has no bearing on the process the government has used to bring down the newspaper, which has not been transparent. The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia spelled out just three problems in a recent statement: The Cambodia Daily has not been allowed opportunity to appeal or negotiate; the Tax Department’s correspondence was leaked to government-friendly media which made it difficult for the newspaper’s management to deal with the issue; the Tax Department calculated the bill in its own audit without referring to The Cambodia Daily’s books that the paper made available.

The last is arguably the most serious. And it also takes the matter to another level. While most people have seen this as a free speech issue (quite rightly) one could also say it is a business issue, since the Daily now operates as a business, not an NGO. Foreign investors can now clearly see how the government treats businesses it doesn’t like and how quickly they can be closed through non-transparent means. It is not just free speech that is at stake.