Southeast Asian lawmakers have expressed “grave concern” over the buyout of The Phnom Penh Post, the last remaining independent newspaper in Cambodia, by a Malaysian investor with reported ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen, amid a wider crackdown on media freedoms in the country.
In a statement issued over the weekend, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) noted that the development occurred days before the May 14 deadline for parties to register for the country’s July 29 national election, and moved Cambodia “further away from any potential for the election to be considered genuine.”
“Having taken drastic steps to transform Cambodia into a de facto one-party state, it appears that Prime Minister Hun Sen believes that even one independent news outlet is too many and that only the complete end of press freedom in Cambodia can assure his reelection,” APHR chairperson and Malaysian parliamentarian Charles Santiago said.
The Phnom Penh Post was sold last weekend for an unknown sum to Malaysian investor Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, who is the CEO of Kuala Lumpur-based public relations company Asia PR. The sale followed the out-of-court settlement of a U.S. $3.9 million claim by the government against the Post and its former owner, Australian mining businessman Bill Clough, for alleged unpaid back taxes.
On May 6, the Post ran a story about the sale that detailed Sivakumar’s ties to Hun Sen and quoted observers expressing concerns about the editorial integrity of the 26-year-old paper, which regularly publishes articles critical of the prime minister’s leadership, going forward. Asia PR lists one of its government-related projects as assisting Hun Sen’s “entry into the government seat.”
In a statement that same day, Sivakumar called the article “a disgrace and an insult to the independence claim of the newspaper” that “borders on internal sabotage” and ordered editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong, and reporters Brendan O’Byrne and Ananth Baliga fired. The article has since been removed, and several other reporters have resigned, citing concerns over the new ownership.
The sale of the Post comes less than 10 months after the forced closure of The Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper that was also pressured over claims of unpaid taxes, and the shuttering of several independent radio programs amid a government crackdown on the media. RFA closed its operations in Cambodia in September.
On Monday, Santiago suggested that the sale of the Post was “part of an official effort to prevent the Cambodian people from hearing anything other than the government’s message.”
“It is the continuation of an unrelenting assault on press freedom,” he added.
APHR noted that restrictions on the media in Cambodia have come amid a wider crackdown on government criticism, which has included the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November and the arrest two months earlier of its president, Kem Sokha, on charges of treason. Kem Sokha’s continued detention has been declared arbitrary by the U.N.
“The denial of the basic right to information runs counter to the very essence of a functioning democratic system,” Philippine Congressman and APHR member Tom Villarin said.
“The demise of press freedom has gone hand in hand with the government’s refusal to allow the people of Cambodia to freely choose their leaders in a democratic election.”
APHR also expressed concern over Hun Sen’s threats to bring legal action against anyone who calls for an election boycott, including former CNRP President Sam Rainsy who has urged supporters to stay away from the polls in July to avoid legitimizing a ballot widely expected to be neither free nor fair, with his party barred from participating.
“Calling for a boycott is a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression,” Villarin said.
“The freedom to choose one’s representative also includes the right to abstain from voting, particularly when conditions preclude the possibility of a genuine choice at the ballot box.”
Six months detained
The APHR’s concerns about press freedom in Cambodia came as two former RFA Khmer Service reporters marked six months in detention on espionage charges, widely seen as politically motivated, prompting their family members and rights groups to demand their release.
Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 last year and formally charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source.” The pair deny the charges, but were denied bail from pre-trial detention and face a possible jail term of up to 15 years if convicted. No trial date has been set.
On Monday, Uon Chhin’s wife Heng Sina called her husband’s arrest “unjustified” and said it had devastated her family.
“We want to be united with our small and modest family, and to live our life free of intimidation,” she said.
“I call on the courts and national and international organizations to help get my husband out of jail because he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Yeang Sothearin’s wife Lam Chantha told RFA that she had lost her home and had to move herself and her small children in with relatives.
“I would like to call for those who arrested him to release him so that he can be reunited with our family,” she said.
A day earlier, New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release the two men, who it said were arrested as part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen that had caused countless journalists, activists and opposition members to flee Cambodia.
“Ahead of July’s national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been filling Cambodia’s prisons with journalists, activists, and politicians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“In its reprisals against RFA for its critical reporting, the government has concocted absurd espionage charges against former journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who should be freed immediately.”
Adams said that a free media is a prerequisite to having true democracy in Cambodia, but that independent journalism is “now being made into a crime.”
“How many more journalists will be slapped with bogus espionage, incitement, and treason charges before concerned governments impose sanctions and signal to Hun Sen that there will be consequences for his retrograde actions,” he asked.
In a separate statement, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called the charges against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin “a direct assault on freedom of the media and designed to frighten other journalists into silence.”
Sok Eysan, spokesperson for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said the arrest of the two reporters “was not done without justification,” and that they have been held for six months “because they are facing several legal proceedings,” including “pornography” charges under Cambodia’s anti-trafficking law, that were added at the end of March.
But Pa Nguon Teang, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, told RFA that the government arrested the two men to send a message to other journalists that criticism of the country’s leadership would not be tolerated.
“If the government continues to detain them it will show the world how immoral and ruthless it is,” he said.
“These two people are innocent … and they need to be released.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.