End of an Era as the Phnom Penh Post Closes Its Doors

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End of an Era as the Phnom Penh Post Closes Its Doors

“With the advent of AI… we are in very scary, uncharted waters,” says co-founder Michael Hayes.

End of an Era as the Phnom Penh Post Closes Its Doors

Michael Hayes, co-founder of the Phnom Penh Post, with a copy of the first and last editions of the newspaper.

Credit: Craig Skehan

Thirty-two years after the first edition was launched, The Phnom Penh Post has closed its English- and Khmer-language editions with senior management blaming growing financial costs which blew out amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the “subsequent economic downturn.”

Its final edition headlined: “Newspaper of record: Post, the world’s window on Cambodia,” harked back to a bygone era when the Post delivered insightful, hard-hitting news and analysis every two weeks.

Its reporters were firmly focused on Cambodia’s civil war, corruption, and political shenanigans. The paper also lent a voice to impoverished millions, Cambodians who endured a 30-year civil war that had reduced their country to a failed state and were living out a hand-to-mouth existence.

The Post closed on Good Friday, prompting one government insider to mix his metaphors, describing its closure as “another crucifixion,” as even former ministers lamented the passing of a newspaper that once took them to task over the running of the country.

“It is most unfortunate, as I read this newspaper every day. I read almost every paper that is published in Cambodia because the information in each one complements the others,” said former information minister Khieu Kanharith. “The loss of one paper may not affect the promotion of reading, but it does shrink the horizon of information.”

Its pending closure was announced on March 1, ending an era that began with Michael Hayes and his then-wife Kathleen O’Keefe, who invested their life savings in starting up the Post as United Nations peacekeepers arrived in 1992 to oversee this country’s transition to democracy.

Hayes sold the paper in 2008 to Australian mining magnate Bill Clough, who invested several millions of dollars on printing presses and staff, turning the Post into a daily newspaper. Clough would fund ongoing losses amid plans to turn a profit by increasing the number of pages and advertising.

It never quite got there. And an unexpected $3.9 million tax bill delivered amid a government crackdown on dissent forced him to sell to government-friendly interests a decade later, and for the past six years, the Post had failed to live up to its formidable reputation.

Hayes was as sentimental as he was pragmatic about the closure in an era that has witnessed the collapse of print and the rise of digital information with artificial intelligence emerging with mixed blessings – offering both a helping hand and posing a threat to honest reporting.

“The Post’s closure was not a surprise. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ From what I hear the new owners were losing money from Day 1,” Hayes told The Diplomat.

“This is all part of a much larger global trend. In the U.S. alone between 2019 and 2022 about 100 papers a year closed. Of course, with the invention of TV in the 1950s most people switched to that for the majority of their news and current events,” he added.

“But the lingering question is where do people get their information from and is it reliable. Now with the advent of AI there is a huge potential for serious manipulation of information and opinion – the kind of stuff that could easily start wars. We are in very scary, uncharted waters,” Hayes said.

Post senior management initially claimed an online edition would be maintained, but sources inside the paper said that was unlikely given a lack of revenue, and a saturated media industry already beholden to editorial policies that rarely stray from the government’s line.

Despite justified criticism that its best days were in the past, the closure of the Phnom Penh Post is a further loss for press freedom in a country often criticized for its deteriorating democratic standards and a lack of independent journalism. The many who worked for the newspaper did the best they could.