By Thomas Brent, Tom O’Connell, Janelle Retka in Phnom Penh
Cambodia’s last independent newspaper has had its editorial team gutted after its managing editor, web editor and two senior journalists resigned following a demand from the Phnom Penh Post’s new owner to take down an article reporting on the sale of the paper over the weekend.
The Post’s editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong was then sacked for his role in the article’s publication.
“I got fired by the new owner…because I’m the editor-in-chief and I allowed the printing of the independent story based on journalistic integrity,” Kimsong told Southeast Asia Globe shortly after he was dismissed.
“I trust my reporters and my editors and I think that being journalists, we made the right decision. But it’s their business and they said, ‘Kimsong, you’re the editor-in-chief – and you made a big mistake.’”
The article, which was published on Sunday evening, confirmed that Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, chief executive and managing director of Malaysia-based public relations firm Asia PR, was the new owner of the newspaper, which has been the nation’s paper of record since 1992.
Outgoing publisher Bill Clough announced the sale in a press release on Saturday, welcoming Sivakumar – also known as Siva – to the role and praising his credentials.
“Siva is a well respected newspaper man, with a [sic] experienced journalist background, and represents a strong investment group from Malaysia,” said Clough, an Australian mining magnate who has be in charge of the paper since 2008.
Doubts over future independence
But journalists and media watchdogs across the region have raised doubts about the paper’s future independence due to a number of concerning links between the Post’s new owner and the Cambodian and Malaysian governments.
Asia PR’s website lists “Cambodia and [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s entry into the government seat” as one of its previous clients. More worryingly, Sivakumar’s personal description maintains that he currently “leads the Asia PR team in managing ‘covert operations’ for our clients.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, described the deal as “a staggering blow to press freedom in Cambodia”.
The Phnom Penh Post had been the subject of a US$3.9 million tax bill, which drew widespread parallels with the circumstances surrounding the shuttering of former English-language publication the Cambodia Daily.
The newspaper, which frequently published stories criticising the government, was shut down last September after being hit with a $6.3 million tax bill widely believed to be politically motivated.
The Post has also been dogged by an ongoing legal action launched by former chief executive Chris Dawe for wrongful dismissal during his tenure at the paper. Clough stated that the Post’s tax bill had been settled as part of the sale.
Post office plunged into chaos
Emotions ran high in the hallways and offices of the Post on Monday afternoon after the new ownership tussled with editors over the story.
Managing editor Stuart White, who has worked for the Post for six years, was the first staff member to refuse to remove the article.
“I was asked to take down the story about the sale by a colleague, who characterised it as a direct order from the new management,” White said. “I didn’t feel like I could do that in good conscience, so I resigned immediately.”
The order was passed through the ranks, with each editor refusing to take down the story.
Web editor Jenni Reid then refused and resigned, followed by the co-authors of the piece, business editor Brendan O’Byrne and senior journalist Ananth Baliga. Chief ececutive Marcus Holmes was the last to tender his resignation.
A senior Cambodian staffer who requested anonymity said that local reporters had pleaded with the new management not to put the paper’s long-running record of independent journalism at risk.
“The rest of the Khmer staff just stayed in the meeting to say, ‘Can you run a second story?’ ‘Do not pull [the original] down…run a second article, correction, make a clarification,’” the staffer said. Management refused, and Kimsong was fired shortly after.
Editors targeted by Sivakumar
Kimsong, O’Byrne and Baliga were all targeted by Sivakumar in an internal memo savaging the Post’s coverage of the newspaper’s sale, with the new owner calling on all three staff members to be “terminated”.
Although a press release from the paper’s new owners announcing the sale maintained that Sivakumar was “fully committed to upholding the paper’s 26-year-old legacy and editorial principles/independence without infringing any relevant laws and regulations of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” the memo – which was published earlier today by local news site AEC News – served up a stinging rebuke to the article, claiming that the piece did not meet the “high caliber” [sic] that the new owners expected from the paper.
Sivakumar called the piece “a disgrace and an insult to the independence claim of the newspaper” and said it “borders on internal sabotage”.
Today it is clear that the editorial independence of Cambodia’s last true independent media is at threat
Among Sivakumar’s complaints against the article were that the reporters forgot to publish his middle initial and that they identified him as “an executive”and “executive director” of Asia PRrather than CEO and managing director.
In the past year, Cambodia’s shrinking independent press has come under fire as the country gears up for a national election in July, with former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen the clear favourite to continue his 33-year reign.
The last gasp of the free press
Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders, expressed his solidarity with the Post’s journalists.
“Rumours about pressures from Hun Sen’s government to try and muzzle the Phnom Penh Post have spread for a few months,” he said. “Today it is clear that the editorial independence of Cambodia’s last true independent media is at threat.
“The removal of the Post’s editor and the censorship on articles detailing the journal’s sale are dreadful signs that journalists will no longer be able to do their work freely.”
More than 30 radio stations known to be critical of Hun Sen’s rule were silenced by the government last year, including Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
Cambodia plunged ten places in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index to number 142 out of 180 countries.
Since launching in January 2007, the Cambodia-based Southeast Asia Globe has sought to “engage our readers through reports that dig deeper and stories that inspire”.