Phnom Penh Post’s sale to PR director increases media freedom fears

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A Cambodian woman reads a copy of the English-language newspaper The Phnom Penh Post at a news stand in Phnom Penh on August 8, 2008. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Founded in 1992, The Post has been described as an “independent and critical” newspaper

A newspaper seen as Cambodia’s last independent English daily has been sold to a Malaysian businessman, sparking fresh concerns about press freedom.

The Phnom Penh Post’s new owner is Sivakumar Ganapthy, director of a PR firm which has previously done work for the Cambodian government.

He has said he will uphold the Post’s legacy and editorial independence.

But the sale comes amidst an increasing crackdown on independent media outlets, ahead of a general election in July.

The Cambodia Daily, another independent newspaper, was last year forced to close after it received a $6.3m (£4.7m) tax bill that it could not pay.

Other independent media outlets have also reportedly been accused of not complying with tax obligations. US government-funded Radio Free Asia recently closed its bureau in Phnom Penh citing a “relentless crackdown” on independent media by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The former owner of the Phnom Penh Post, Australian Bill Clough, confirmed the sale of the paper on Saturday, blaming falling advertising revenues.

He identified the buyer as Sivakumar G, and said he was “a well respected newspaper man”.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hun Sen has been prime minister in Cambodia for more than three decades

The paper had previously been ordered by authorities to pay a tax bill of $3.9m, but Mr Clough said this had been resolved as part of the deal.

The sale has raised concerns in the journalism community about press freedom as the election approaches.

The outlets which have faced problems had often reported on topics such as corruption and human rights abuses that embarrassed the government of Hun Sen, who has been prime minister for 33 years.

Former Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief Chad Williams said it was clear the government approved of the sale.

“From the outside looking in, the most troubling thing is the timing of the tax bill’s settlement and the Post’s subsequent sale. The odds of them not being connected seem incredibly remote,” he told Reuters.

“That’s troubling because it suggests the Cambodian government may have used the threat of a shutdown to essentially coerce the sale,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said there was “no plausible business rationale for an obscure Malaysian public relations firm to buy this newspaper, except to seek control for elite Cambodian friends”.

“This looks like the beginning of the end for the Phnom Penh Post as an independent and critical newspaper.”

Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, told Reuters the sale was “normal business” and that the Post “remains a newspaper”.

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