PHNOM PENH – The new owner of Cambodia’s beleaguered Phnom Penh Post on Friday denied links to the country’s authoritarian government and defended a stormy takeover which saw journalists resign en masse over fears for editorial independence.
The May 4 takeover of the English-language daily by Malaysian investor Siva Kumar G after he purchased the paper last month sent a shudder of dread through advocates of free expression in the kingdom, where premier Hun Sen has crushed all criticism in the run-up to July elections.
The buyer also owns Asia PR, a company that once worked for Cambodia’s government, stirring alarm over apparent cosy links with the ruling party.
Hun Sen has dismantled the fragile democracy’s once-vibrant media scene over the past year, with the Post one of few remaining watchdogs in the graft-riddled country.
The paper’s main rival, the Cambodia Daily, was among media closed last year as part of a wider crackdown on critics ahead of 2018 polls that Hun Sen is determined to win.
In a combative press conference Friday, Siva said he took over Asia PR in 2011, long after any business it might have had with Hun Sen’s administration, insisting no ties remain.
“I wish to clarify there is no government involvement,” he said of the sale, admitting that it had gotten off to a “rocky start.”
Citing his own background as a journalist by training, Siva said the sale was a “simple and honest business venture” and that he had been “demonized by certain journalists at the Phnom Penh Post.”
Most of the foreign staff members resigned after refusing to take down an article about the sale while the Cambodian editor-in-chief was fired.
One former employee disputed Siva’s comments about the ex-staffers, saying the article was a “straight news report in order to be transparent about the sale of the Phnom Penh Post.”
Siva, whose full name is Sivakumar Ganapathy, hinted on Friday at new restructuring plans, saying he had appointed a transition team.
The Post was founded by American journalist Michael Hayes in 1992, just as Cambodia was set to hold democratic elections after years of civil strife and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia plunged 10 places in this year’s media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders.
A court spokesman in Phnom Penh told reporters on Friday that two former Radio Free Asia journalists arrested and accused of espionage late last year would have their pre-trial detention extended.
The rapid decline of the kingdom’s media scene has followed a lurch into greater authoritarianism.
The main opposition party — Hun Sen’s only real rival — was dissolved in a court ruling last year.
Both the U.S. and EU have pulled support for the July 29 vote, which the leader’s Cambodian People’s Party is expected to dominate.