The new Malaysian owners of the Phnom Penh Post have had a difficult start so far, with their attempts to exert significant editorial control over the newspaper’s reporting team ending in sackings and walkouts and quite possibly also breaching Cambodia’s constitution in the process.
Heated arguments erupted on the first day of work for Sivakumar S. Ganapathy (Siva) – also the managing director of AsiaPR – who won control of the newspaper from Australian mining magnate Bill Clough after his company encountered tax difficulties.
Editor Kay Kimsong was among the first day casualties after Siva’s men made it known they were unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage of the buyout, which included references to Siva’s clients and a book he wrote.
Kay Kimsong was walked and applauded to the door, surrounded and protected by his local and foreign staff, amid a sometimes tearful farewell.
“It stuns me that a company that prides itself on public relations can do such a thing,” said a Phnom Penh Post executive who declined to be named.
Of particular concern are Siva’s connections with Taib Mahmud, former chief minister of Sarawak in East Malaysia, who amassed a family fortune estimated at more than $20 billion before retiring from 33 years in office in 2014.
Allegations of corruption blighted Taib’s political career. He was a key figure in an investigation by Swiss authorities into claims that UBS Bank was involved in money laundering and a report by the Bruno Manser Fund once warned of a “cultural genocide” given Taib’s plans to dam nearly all the rivers in Sarawak’s interior.
Siva, Taib’s official biographer, authored The Visionary “about his work, his achievements, his vision.” The book, according to its description, and affords “a glimpse into Taib’s private life as well as his retirement.”
That kind of PR fluff didn’t sit well with journalists at the Phnom Penh Post, who refused to change copy already published online to suit the demands of their new regime. The two journalists with their bylines at the top of the story were sacked in a very public edict that defended Taib.
Siva’s men might also find that they had also technically breached Cambodia’s constitution on their first day in office: Article 41 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia provides that all Khmer citizens have the right to freedom of expression, press, publication, and assembly.
Importantly, this type of behavior could spell an end to a rich 26-year history of reportage established by the newspaper’s founders, Americans Michael Hayes and Kathleen O’Keefe.
In September, the Cambodia Daily closed, also following a tax dispute, and a ban was imposed on broadcasts by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of Democracy amid government claims that foreign forces were at work attempting to stage a color revolution.
The pro-government Khmer Times — which likes to see itself as a rival to the Phnom Penh Post – was upset by the show of international support for the newspaper. The Times left little doubt where it stands on the sale, editorializing:
In reality, this is nothing but an attack on Cambodia’s tax regime and the Kingdom’s judiciary and by virtue of this, an attack on the country.
Any attempts to link the sale to the forthcoming election in July is simply a case of misrepresentation, for which the publishing license of The PPPost should have been revoked.
The editorial writer was referring to the July 29 poll, which the Khmer Times expects to be won by Prime Minister Hun Sen after the courts dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The tone of the article was genuinely frightening and smacked of nasty vindictiveness. Among other things, the Times claimed its publisher T. Mohan had been “demonized” by anyone close to the paper, warning: “Any attempts [by the Phnom Penh Post] to paint itself as the last remaining bastion of a free press in Cambodia is deceitful and misleading.”
Phnom Penh Post journalists said Siva’s team was attempting to force fiercely independent reporters to toe their version of a pro-government line, which media watchdogs and human rights group said they had feared leading up to an election.
The passing of the Phnom Penh Post will leave Cambodia without a trusted English language daily and further limit Cambodians’ access to independent news.
As the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand noted: “Such tactics obviously jeopardize any hope of maintaining a moderately free press in Cambodia, but should also be of grave concern to all investors in the country who may find themselves on the wrong side of officialdom or vested interests with no viable legal recourse.”
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt