Like strongmen everywhere, including the increasingly embattled one in the U.S. White House, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen distrusts the media. Earlier this year, Hun Sen spoke approvingly of President Donald Trump’s hostility toward the “anarchic” press and warned journalists in his own country not to threaten its hard-won “peace and stability” ahead of a general election in 2018.
Just in case the election goes the wrong way, Hun Sen had the opposition leader slung in jail. As The Economist quipped darkly this month, you don’t get to be the world’s longest-serving prime minister by trusting voters.
After 32 years in power, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have a choke-hold over television and newspapers that Trump might envy. The prime minister’s daughter runs a string of private TV and radio stations. The party’s deputy leader owns the country’s most popular newspaper. Most other media outlets are run by people with close connections to the CPP. And increasingly, it seems, the establishment media and the state distrust meddling Westerners.
Cambodia ranks 132nd out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, an independent watchdog. That ranking was published before the government silenced several radio stations, including the Voice of Democracy (funded by the European Union) and the U.S.-funded Voice of America. In September it was the turn of The Cambodia Daily, shut down by an impossibly large tax bill.
“The government never liked us, but it always used us to say that the country has a free press,” says Deborah Krisher-Steele, the paper’s deputy publisher and daughter of Bernard Krisher, its Tokyo-based founder. Deborah’s husband, Douglas Steele, the daily’s general manager, is still kicking his heels in Phnom Penh, unable to leave. “If I went to a border or an airport I would be arrested,” he said over his cellphone.
Hun Sen’s weapon of choice, says Krisher-Steele, was a $6.3 million bill for tax arrears. In August, he said the daily had evaded tax for years and accused its owners of pocketing VAT. Krisher-Steele says the paper, founded in 1993, never made money: It cost $60,000 a month (mostly in payrolls) to run, and had income of just $40,000 a month.
“Me and my dad were subsidizing that,” she says. “It was a mission; it wasn’t about making money.”
“Descent into outright dictatorship” blared the page 1 lead headline of the final print edition on Sept. 4, over a photograph of Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (the only party with a chance of beating the CCP in next year’s election) being led away by police. He faces charges of treason and conspiring with the United States against the Cambodian government, which has asked the courts to dissolve his party.
During its quarter-century run, The Cambodia Daily was accused of taking CIA money — part of a larger supposed American effort to destabilize the government. Those claims are rejected by Krisher-Steele.
“We are independent,” she says. “There is suspicion that the CIA funds us but the (Cambodian) tax office inspected our books and saw that we are operating at huge losses. They justified this by hinting that we are being subsidized by the CIA. It’s not true.”
The belief that America is backing Hun Sen’s opponents runs deep among his supporters. True or not, it is not hard to tap into anti-American sentiment. During the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon authorized the bombing of the Cambodian countryside, killing thousands of people and arguably paving the way for the Khmer Rouge regime, which murdered hundreds of thousands more. Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge commander.
Underlying his increasingly authoritarian leadership four decades later is America’s waning power in the region, and the growing clout of China, which strongly supports him.
“Cambodians used to care a lot more about what Americans thought of them,” says Krisher-Steele. “They may not care so much now — they have China.” That helps explain, she says, why the Cambodia government simply dismissed Western criticism of the closure of the newspaper. “China has backed Hun Sen for arresting the opposition. They said it was necessary for the stability of democracy there.”
Japan has declined to take sides in the dispute, she says.
“I have spoken to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they said they don’t like to interfere with the internal situation in Cambodia. They said, ‘You need to work this out with the tax department.'”
China is outspending all other nations in Cambodia, accounting for $732 million in bilateral aid last year, according to Reuters — four times the amount spent by the United States. And unlike cash from the West, China’s money comes without demands for political reform or criticism of human rights.
“The Chinese always support us in economic growth and they never interfere in our decisions,” government spokesman Phay Siphan recently told Reuters.
America’s demand that the Cambodian government repays over $500 million in aid to feed refugees from the war (many created through American bombing) has not helped improve local sentiment, says Krisher-Steele.
“Trump emboldens Hun Sen and other people,” she says.
In February, the prime minister publicly questioned Trump on the demand. “You’re the ones who bombed us,” he asked. “Why are you asking us to pay?”
The paper’s staff first read about its ruinous tax bill in Fresh News, a government online mouthpiece. Exorbitant claims are usually followed by months or years of haggling, but the authorities showed no interest at all in compromise, insists Krisher-Steele.
“They said, ‘You must pay by Sept. 4.’ That’s when our business started to crater — when advertisers saw this little paper and thought it is not going to exist next month.”
What comes next is unclear, she says.
“The worst-case scenario is they arrest my husband and say he owes $6.3 million” — conviction could mean six years in jail. Such threats are “revenge,” she believes, for the uncompromising last edition, “which held nothing back.” She talked her father, a former Tokyo-based foreign correspondent who was once on speaking terms with both Hun Sen and now-deceased King Norodom Sihanouk, out of flying to Cambodia to confront the government. “He is 87, has a heart condition and wouldn’t make it,” she says.
Bernard Krisher started the paper in 1993 as part of a philanthropic project that included supplying Cambodia with mosquito nets, schools, a hospital and more. (He once persuaded J.K. Rowling to let him publish “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the country for 50 cents a copy.) The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, he is best known in Japan for conducting a landmark one-on-one interview with Emperor Hirohito for Newsweek magazine in 1975.
His daughter was 12 at the time, she recalls.
“Dad said, ‘Guess who I’m going to interview tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘Who cares!'”
Later, she began to accompany him around Asia, transcribing interviews. In those days, she says, journalists could still meet all kinds of leaders, even the head of the North Korean military, which still thought detente with the Americans was possible.
“I think it is going in a really bad way,” she says of the current White House strategy of ruling out dialogue with the Pyongyang regime. “I don’t think it is smart to push the leadership into a corner. Nobody wants a war with North Korea.”
The imprint of the Cambodian government’s heavy hand on print and the airwaves is hardly exceptional. Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index warns of “a tipping point in the state of media freedom” worldwide, especially in leading democratic countries. “Democracies began falling in the index in preceding years and now, more than ever, nothing seems to be checking that fall,” the watchdog reports. Activists used to look to America for inspiration, but the anti-media discourse there is emboldening repressive governments across Asia.
As for The Cambodia Daily, it will go on, says Krisher-Steele. Her father wants to take it offshore, and perhaps exclusively online — a sort of electronic version of its original incarnation: an A4-sized newsletter (so formatted so it could faxed from overseas). That will require donors, and journalists inside Cambodia willing to risk writing for it.
Any offer of American or Japanese government help will be rejected, Krisher-Steele says.
“Dad doesn’t think in those terms. He wants to preserve its independence.” The value of the paper “is priceless,” she says. “It’s our intellectual property.”
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