THE recent acquisition of The Phnom Penh Post newspaper has left rights groups and concerned observers decrying the dismal state of press freedom in Cambodia. But no one has been left more shell-shocked than fellow-journalists in the country and the very staff who built it to be the reputable publication it is today.
“[A] piece of me was taken away when [Cambodia Daily] was shut down. Now I’m devastated & infuriated at what’s happening to professional journalists & editor-in-chief” at the Phnom Penh Post, wrote one Cambodian journalist on Twitter.
“I know my friends over there won’t give up & I’ll join you. Truth shall prevail.”
What Human Rights Watch has called a “staggering blow to press freedom” took only a matter of days; starting with the announcement of a questionable buyout on Saturday and culminating in a staff exodus – and a major hit to journalism – by Monday.
Former owner of The Post Australian miner Bill Clough ended months of speculation by announcing the sale of the news portal to a Malaysian investor known as Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.
In an environment that has seen radio stations closed and reputable papers shuttered under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, the sale sparked fresh fears for independent journalism in the lead up to the July general election.
The background and political links of The Post’s new owner raised particular concern, when it was discovered the PR firm for which Sivakumar is CEO – Asia PR – has links with both the Malaysian and Cambodian governments.
According to its website, Asia PR lists among its former clients, “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry to the Government seat.” Sivakumar himself is listed as a “strategist for the government.”
— Chhengpor Aun (@aunchhengpor) May 7, 2018
The Post was the first to report on these links in a front-page article that ran on Monday morning, the first day of work under new leadership. The article has since been removed from their website.
The backlash from the new owners in response to the article was abrupt.
Editor in chief, Kay Kimsong, along with the two writers behind the article were fired with immediate effect.
In a statement, Sivakumar listed a number of reasons for their termination. These included, spelling his name wrong; mislabelling him as “executive” of Asia PR as opposed to CEO; and saying he had links with the Malaysian and Cambodian governments, as this “cannot be concluded based on what took place between the PR firm and the client more than 25 years ago.”
Statement from the Phnom Penh Post's new owner in which he outlines the termination with "immediate effect" of three reporters and the paper's editor in chief. pic.twitter.com/TcGZH24h3u
— Amy Sawitta Lefevre (@MimiSawitta) May 7, 2018
Leading staff made their feelings on the firings clear by starting a mass exodus that saw five senior staff members, including CEO Marcus Holmes, and eight reporters resign in protest.
Mr. Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, has just been fired from his position, according to reporter there. All staffs are protesting. So sad to hear that! #PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/y4KQTacxHB
— Chandara Yang (@chandararfa) May 7, 2018
“After being ordered to remove my story regarding the sale of the Phnom Penh Post from the website by new management, I refused and offered my resignation,” Business Editor Brendan O’Byrne wrote on Twitter.
After being ordered to remove my story regarding the sale of the Phnom Penh Post from the website by new management, I refused and offered my resignation, which was accepted. I wish the fantastic journalists at The Post all the best.
— Brendan O'Byrne (@BrendanOByrne) May 7, 2018
Web Editor Jenni Reid resigned, fearing for the newspaper’s “legacy of independent journalism” after it became clear all stories would have to be approved by the incoming editor in chief.
Today I resigned from @phnompenhpost for the same reason. We were also told all stories would need to be approved by a new EIC I didn’t believe would continue the newspaper’s legacy of independent journalism – held up by the fearless efforts of its Khmer reporters and editors https://t.co/KnxTLTAar6
— Jenni Reid (@Watchjen) May 7, 2018
One staff member, Quinn Libson, told how Digital Director Jodie DeJonge was unceremoniously deleted from the staff webpage and locked out of her email as she was preparing to tender resignation.
We are now down to zero editors. Our last woman standing, @jdejonge, was deleted from our staff page and locked out of her email as she was penning her resignation letter. Once again, you should read this while it’s still up: https://t.co/m5XSi95oeE
— E. Quinn Libson (@quinnlibson) May 7, 2018
Those that remained after the glut of resignations, were left shell-shocked by the day’s proceedings. The rapidity of events and the disbelief that followed played out on social media in real time.
Newsroom staff released a statement to express their “disgust for this decision” to remove the article and fire head staff, saying it was in “contradiction to the values of a free press.”
— Leonie Kijewski (@LeonieKij) May 7, 2018
Journalists from around the region stood in solidarity with their colleagues, expressing their dismay and sadness, not only for the loss of The Post but for the deteriorating standard of press freedom throughout Southeast Asia.
It is devastating to watch what is unfolding at The Phnom Penh Post. I worked at The Phnom Penh Post and I worked at The Cambodia Daily. They may have been imperfect institutions at times, but the loss leaves a crater-sized hole.
— Abby Seiff (@instupor) May 7, 2018
Putin, Chavez, Kagame, Erdogan, Orban and now Hun Sen…all have used loyalists to buy independent media companies. Editorial oversight, advertising restrictions, bias coverage and job cuts always follow. Staff should brace themselves. https://t.co/zvficnvFZC
— Lee Morgenbesser (@LMorgenbesser) May 5, 2018
Top editors at the venerable Phnom Penh Post have resigned after refusing orders from new Malaysian owners to take down (aka spike) a story. The @phnompenhpost was the last remaining independent media voice in Cambodia. This marks yet another blow for press freedom in Asia. https://t.co/91KthCNoUb
— Keith Richburg (@keithrichburg) May 7, 2018
“This marks yet another blow for press freedom in Asia,” wrote Keith Richburg, Director of The Journalism and Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong and former-Washington Post bureau chief. And he is not alone in this concern.
A climate of fear has risen among journalists since Hun Sen’s all-out war on the independent media began in early 2017. Since then, several journalists have been arrested and charged with espionage or inciting crime.
In the 2018 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Cambodia dropped 10 places from 132 to 142, and the country’s independent press was described as being “in ruins.”
The shrinking space for balanced and informed discussion is particularly worrying in a country that is rife with concerns of authoritarianism and one-party rule in the lead up to the general election.
As the country gears up for polling day on July 29, Hun Sen – who has remained in power for 33 years – has dissolved the only credible opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party, in November and jailed its leader, Kem Sokha.
In a political environment so controlled, a clear and impartial voice is needed now more than ever. But as Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, points out, this seems like “the beginning of the end for the Phnom Penh Post.”
For the staff that remain, the future is uncertain.
“It’s been a sad day for me,” Chief of staff Chhay Channyda told The Post.
“I’ve been here for about ten years to serve one of the country’s independent newspapers. But today The Post is changing. And I don’t know what happens next.”