Argument

The ‘Cambodia Daily’ Is Dying in Darkness

Cambodia’s autocratic leader is trying to shut down his country’s most celebrated journalistic training ground.

Cambodian people cover their heads with local newspapers as they wait to pray for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk at the cremation site near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on February 2, 2013.  A sea of mourners filled the streets of the Cambodian capital on February 1, for a lavish funeral for revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who towered over six tumultuous decades in his nation's history.  AFP PHOTO/TANG CHHIN SOTHY        (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)
Cambodian people cover their heads with local newspapers as they wait to pray for the late former King Norodom Sihanouk at the cremation site near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on February 2, 2013. A sea of mourners filled the streets of the Cambodian capital on February 1, for a lavish funeral for revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who towered over six tumultuous decades in his nation's history. AFP PHOTO/TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

For almost 25 years, the Cambodia Daily has been shining a light on Cambodia’s social, political, and economic development. Founded in 1993, the independent national paper has trained generations of Khmer and foreign journalists — including myself. And it has tirelessly informed a nation, “without fear or favor,” on thorny topics like illegal loggingcorruption, and land evictions. But now Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, wants to silence it.

The Cambodia Daily faces a mammoth $6.3 million tax bill — one that the government appears to have conjured from thin air. In August, details first emerged of long-term Cambodian autocrat Hun Sen’s intentions to investigate the taxes of the country’s civil society organizations, a time-honored method of going after critical voices in undemocratic states. The government calculated the charges in its own audit, without even reviewing the Daily’s accounts, and the prime minster said the bill must be paid by Sept. 4 or its staff must “pack up and go.” The paper has not been allowed to appeal or negotiate the case, according to the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia.

Owned by Deborah Krisher-Steele, the daughter of veteran American journalist and founder Bernard Krisher, the Daily has long walked a tightrope with detailed and nonpartisan reporting, alongside a government hellbent on maintaining power while keeping up a facade of democracy. But with national elections next year, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is anxiously looking over its shoulder at the growingly popular opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). At the same time, the U.S. pullback from the region, coupled with the growing power of China, has given Hun Sen a new confidence in dropping even the pretense of democracy.

The prime minister — Asia’s longest ruling leader, at more than 32 years now — has already done his best to enervate the political opposition over the years. Now, just as online connectivity has brought numerous democratic dividends, his party, the CPP, feels emboldened to act against free expression.

The threats against the Daily have recently been matched by the government’s expulsion of foreign staff at the National Democratic Institute, an important U.S.-based nongovernmental organization. That was followed by the shuttering of numerous radio stations giving airtime to outlets including the Voice of Democracy, and the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, on dubious contract violation charges. “We fear a pre-emptive clampdown designed to silence media that are likely to let the opposition’s voice be heard,” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It is highly likely that the nation’s only other major English-language daily, the Phnom Penh Post, could be targeted next.

The impending closure of the Daily is not just a blow to my friends working there but also to the Cambodian diaspora, global newsrooms, and, most importantly, the Cambodian public. In a nation ranked 132 out of 180 in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, journalists already face violent and legal threats and limited access to the government or reliable data, alongside the idiosyncratic challenges of trying to operate a daily newsroom in a developing country. Working under intense stress and pressure from a morning pitch meeting until final prints, sometimes more than 12 hours later, the paper illustrates every day its staff’s dogged dedication to correcting Cambodia’s many deficiencies.

The nation’s semblance of economic liberalization and democracy has managed to keep it largely out the limelight, but despite years of strong economic growth — albeit imbalanced and narrowly based — modern Cambodia is still plagued by inconsistent rule of law, human rights abuses, and a weak bureaucracy. Cambodia’s self-styled strongman, Hun Sen, has created a “huge network of secret deal-making, corruption and cronyism” for him and his family, according to a 2016 Global Witness report.

The Cambodia Daily’s predicament likely has to do with next year’s national election campaign, in which the opposition CNRP seems to be gaining traction. But that’s not the only reason for the government’s crackdown on democracy. First, the crackdown comes at a time when the CPP has been gradually leaning away from the West, and all the civil society pressures that the relationship entails, toward China’s abundance of unconditional funding and foreign direct investment. And so while the European Union and the United States have been preoccupied with challenges closer to home, the leverage of their moral and democratic appeals in Cambodia has slowly been waning. Hun Sen knows he can keep a lid on the nation’s democratic development with criticism-free donations from China on tap should the West and global institutions threaten a retrenchment.

That’s not the only geopolitical development at play. With U.S. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the CPP has found justification for its dictatorial impulses. In fact, Hun Sen and his government have cited Trump’s anti-media tirades as justification to clamp down on foreign outlets in the country. The loss of Washington’s credibility as a defender of human rights under Trump’s presidency comes as Freedom House warns of a decline in democratic norms across the world. This only emboldens autocratic rulers.

Second, Hun Sen may have felt compelled to assert his authority precisely because Cambodians are more impatient than ever for democracy. With almost two-thirds of the population under the age of 30 and little direct memory of conflict and the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, the national psyche has evolved from a desire for stability toward a drive for change. Many came of age under Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime at a time when globalization has brought new ideas and viewpoints to the nation.

Lastly, the speed of information flow through social media — and online journalism — is stretching the state’s ability to police opposing voices. The CPP already scours social media for dissenters in an attempt to stave off an internationally inspired democratic “color revolution.” That makes cutting off dissent at the roots a more tempting prospect.

But, for now, even in the face of an impending closure, the Daily is continuing to deliver the news. Credible, or decisive, action from international policymakers may not come in time for Sept. 4 — if at all. It means the best chance for survival might just come from civil society, the very organism the paper has so tirelessly fought for. Public pressure on the government may force an official audit of the paper, an appeals process, or extra time. Either way, harnessing a domestic and global movement to #SaveTheDaily may just be the paper’s best hope.

Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

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