THE CAMBODIAN Foreign Affairs Ministry has ordered US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) immediately cease its operations and expel its foreign staff from Cambodia within seven days.
The announcement came after the Cambodia Daily newspaper was threatened with closure by the government if it does not pay a US$6.4 million tax bill by Sept 4.
On Wednesday, the American-funded NDI was ordered to cease operations over what the government claims was a failure to register with authorities. It has threatened to “take the same measures” against any foreign NGOs not obeying Cambodian law.
“Shuttering NDI without giving them an adequate opportunity to respond to these allegations has brought these fears to life,” said Malaysian MP Charles Santiago on Wednesday, chairman of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is presiding over a crackdown on political opposition, civil society and the media seen to be a threat ahead of national elections in 2018. On Tuesday, Hun Sen lashed out at NGOs, the United States and the press, singling out the Cambodia Daily.
— The Cambodia Daily (@cambodiadaily) August 23, 2017
“It is too much and the ‘chief thief’ [Cambodia Daily] does not pay the tax to the state for about 10 years. If you want to stay, please pay the tax to the state,” said Hun Sen as quoted by the Phnom Penh Post.
“If you do not want to pay the tax to the state, please pack up your things and leave.”
The newspaper, whose masthead reads “All the news without fear or favour”, has operated in Cambodia since 1993. The government has also targeted Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America for supposedly avoiding media registration and taxation obligations.
“The Cambodia Daily’s bill is part of an effort by the government to call the country’s media organisations and NGOs to account for back taxes,” said a statement from the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) on Tuesday, which said it was “disturbed” by the government’s move.
The newspaper “has a history of running stories that have angered the government leading many to believe the tax department is being used to target critics ahead of the 2018 general elections,” it said.
While Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won local commune elections in June, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), however, fared well.
The government has been widely criticised for its crackdown on civil society and repeated threats of violence against the CNRP as the ruling CPP tries to cling to power ahead of the 2018 national polls.
Hun Sen has been in power for three decades – making him one of the longest-serving world leaders on the planet. In May, he warned of “civil war” if the CPP did not continue to “win elections, every election.”
“The fact that this comes in a context of increasing repression of freedom of expression and civil society space in Cambodia is all the more worrying, and hints at continued attempts by the ruling party to consolidate power ahead of next year’s national elections,” Santiago said.
Cambodia Daily deputy publisher Deborah Krishner-Steele said the Cambodian government has not justified the publication’s massive tax bill.
“This is a chance for PM Hun Sen to show his leadership and prove he is capable of running his agencies competently and that there is no political motive behind the move to shut down the Cambodia Daily,” said Krishner-Steele as quoted by the Phnom Penh Post.
The hashtag #SaveTheDaily is trending on Twitter in Cambodia, with many current and former employees of the newspaper coming forth to express solidarity with the organisation and condemn the government’s decision.
— Kate Ginn (@kate_ginn) August 23, 2017
— Omar Havana (@OmarHavana) August 23, 2017
— Eli Meixler (@elimeixler) August 23, 2017
“The Cambodian people have enjoyed a free press for much of Hun Sen’s 32 years as prime minister. Even as neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia were consistently ranked at the bottom of press freedom lists,” OPCC said.