Government ‘Purge’ of News Outlets Draws International Coverage

In a country most often covered for its past, it is current events in Cambodia that have attracted global attention of late.

The government’s recent threats against independent media outlets and its expulsion of a pro-democracy NGO have drawn rare international interest, casting a harsh spotlight on the country’s ongoing crackdown.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith speaks at a media conference at the Information Ministry in Phnom Penh yesterday, where he denied the government was pushing US-funded outlets Radio Free Asia and Voice of America off the air by shutting down local broadcasters that carry their programs. (Leng Len/The Cambodia Daily)

While worldwide coverage of Cambodia often centers around Angkorian temples or the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, outlets in recent days have published pieces detailing the government’s moves against a free press, part of what political observers have labeled a new era of repression in the country.

Following a Tuesday statement from Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he branded The Cambodia Daily a “thief” and ordered it to pay a disputed $6.3 million tax bill by September 4 “or pack up and go,” The Guardian, Reuters and The New York Times published stories the following day, covering the issue and the broader tightening of civil society.

On Thursday, other organizations joined in with The Associated Press, Financial Times, Quartz, Time and the BBC all reporting on the escalating diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Cambodia, as well as the threats against the Daily and two U.S.-funded media outlets critical of the government, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Many of the stories also included the government’s closure and expulsion of all foreign staff members of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, a move the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has strongly protested, asking in a recent Facebook post, “Is #Cambodia Committed to Democracy? You Decide!” At a U.S. State Department media briefing on Thursday, former Daily staffer and current Associated Press reporter Matt Lee asked about the newspaper’s situation, prompting State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert to describe the tax bill as “exorbitant” and part of a “biased approach on the part of the government.”

U.S. Ambassador William Heidt “has had conversations with the head of what I’ll just refer to as the tax agency there to try to get them to regard taxes or impose taxes in a fair and neutral fashion,” Ms. Nauert said.

The Guardian described the government’s actions as a “purge of critical media,” while the BBC and Time articles featured accusations of political bias and attempts to muzzle dissent by the government. The Daily’s publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, has also said the tax demands are politically motivated.

“This is clearly a tax bill that is not meant to be paid but whose purpose is to close down the Cambodia Daily,” she said.

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