‘Truth shall prevail’: Shell-shock after sale of Cambodia’s last independent paper
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‘Truth shall prevail’: Shell-shock after sale of Cambodia’s last independent paper

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.”

SEE ALSO: Cambodian newspaper sold to PR firm linked to Hun Sen

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.”

SEE ALSO: Cambodian free press ‘in ruins’, says Reporters Without Borders

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.”