More walkouts over new ownership of embattled Cambodian newspaper

By AFP   May 8, 2018 | 06:53 pm PT
More walkouts over new ownership of embattled Cambodian newspaper
A Cambodian vendor reads the Phnom Penh Post newspaper at her newstand in Phnom Penh on May 7, 2018. Photo by AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Hun Sen's government has taken a hammer to the fragile democracy's once-vibrant media.

Seven more journalists resigned from Cambodia's embattled Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday as foreign staff revolt against new ownership accused of crushing the newspaper's independence.

Concern over the fate of the English-language daily has been mounting since it was sold on Saturday to a Malaysian investor whose PR firm once worked for Cambodia's authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen's government has taken a hammer to the fragile democracy's once-vibrant media scene over the past year, leaving the Post as one of few remaining watchdogs in the graft-riddled country.

The paper's main rival, the Cambodia Daily, and dozens of radio stations were shuttered last year as part of a wider crackdown on critics ahead of 2018 polls that Hun Sen is determined to win.

Now many fear the Post's independence will be compromised under a newowner, Sivakumar Ganapathy, who is the CEO of a public relations firm that lists Hun Sen as a former client.

On Monday the paper's Cambodian editor-in-chief and at least four other staff were fired or quit after they were ordered to take down an article detailing the new proprietor's business history with Cambodia's government.

Seven more foreign staff handed in their resignations on Tuesday, gutting the news desk of a small but feisty paper founded in 1992.

"We got to a point with our new editor-in-chief, to me at least, where it seemed like there was an irreconcilable difference when it came to editorial independence," said Erin Handley, one of the reporters to resign on Tuesday.

The Post could not immediately be reached for comment.

On Sunday Ganapathy released an irate statement listing his objections with the article his representative had demanded reporters remove.

He said it was "untrue" to describe his company, Asia PR, as linked to the Cambodian government.

This "cannot be concluded based on what happened between the firm and the client more than 25 years ago," the statement said.

Asia PR's website lists "Cambodia and Hun Sen's entry into the government seat" as one of its former projects.

The firm has declined repeated requests for comment, while a Cambodian government spokesman said he was unaware of the sale.

"The Phnom Penh Post is a now a sinking ship," said Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.

"The only one rubbing his hands in glee at this scenario is Prime Minister Hun Sen who obviously hoped for this kind of outcome," he added.

Cambodia plunged 10 places in this year's media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders.

The rapid deterioration of the media scene has compounded concerns over the country's lurch into authoritarianism.

The main opposition party - Hun Sen's only real rival - was dissolved in a court ruling last year, in a move that rights groups condemned as a death knell for the country's democracy.

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