Several senior staff at Cambodia‘s Phnom Penh Post have resigned after the publication’s new owner fired the editor-in-chief and demanded a story be retracted, prompting further fears over eroding press freedom in the country.
Editor Kay Kimsong said he had been fired for allowing the publication of a story on Sunday concerning the paper’s sale to Malaysian businessman Sivakumar S Ganapathy.
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Ganapathy is the managing director of a Malasyia-based public relations firm, ASIA PR, which lists “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat” as a former “project”.
More than 20 current and former staff members signed a statement on Monday expressing their “disgust” after “representatives of the new owners” went to the Post’s offices and “ordered” staff to remove the article from the newspaper’s website.
At least four senior Post personnel, including its managing editor and web editor, resigned in protest.
As of 19:00 GMT on Monday, the article had not been removed from the Post’s website.
Editorial independence under threat
Kimsong, a Post employee for the past 10 years, told the Associated Press news agency that he had done “nothing wrong” to warrant his removal.
“The owner has complained that I allowed the editorial team to publish the story of the buying and selling of the paper that affected to the interests of the paper as well as the image of the owner,” Kimsong said.
“I acted according to journalistic professionalism, but the company said they cannot keep me in my position.”
Al Jazeera understands Ganapathy, who is described by Asia PR’s website as “a journalist by discipline and qualification” with international experience, will issue a statement within the next 24 hours regarding the article, and staffing at the Post.
Erin Handley, a reporter for the Post, told Al Jazeera the paper’s new ownership appeared to be clamping down on editorial independence despite having pledged during the takeover not to do so.
“When the sale was made, we were promised there would be no dismissals or changes of staff to begin with, [and] what is really key is the promise we had of editorial independence,” Handley said.
“Now, we are worried about our editorial independence heading into this year’s national elections. The main opposition party has been dissolved and in the past year Cambodia has lost a lot of independent media, so we were widely considered to be the last independent news outlet here.”
‘Disastrous day for press freedom’
Bill Clough, chairman of Post Media Ltd, publisher of the Phnom Penh Post, announced the paper’s sale to Ganapathy in a statement on Saturday.
“Recent times have been a challenge, as the worldwide decline in market share for newspaper advertising has also been felt here in Cambodia,” Clough said, adding that the Post was part of “the last remaining truly independent media group in the country”.
The value of the sale has not been disclosed.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of international NGO Human Rights Watch, said events at the Post following Ganapathy’s takeover had been “disastrous”.
“So much for the pledge [by Ganapathy] to respect the editorial independence of the @phnompenhpost. The ‘former journalist’ turns out really to be the current censor for #Cambodia & #Malaysia interests still unnamed. A super dark, disastrous day for #pressfreedom in Cambodia,” Roberston said in a tweet on Monday.
So much for the @sivakumar03110912 pledge to respect the editorial independence of the @phnompenhpost. The 'former journalist' turns out really to be the current censor for #Cambodia & #Malaysia interests still unnamed. A super dark, disastrous day for #pressfreedom in Cambodia https://t.co/ahGQVemEdK
— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) May 7, 2018
Several independent media outlets have been shut down in Cambodia during the past year.
In September, independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily announced it was shutting down after being slapped with a $6.3m tax bill which its publishers said was politically motivated.
The Daily’s closure came weeks after a government crackdown on 32 radio stations, including Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh bureau, according to figures compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an organisation aimed at protecting press freedom.
RSF alleges Hun Sen’s government is leading “an all-out war on independent media outlets with the aim of ensuring victory in the general elections scheduled for July 2018”.
Hun Sen is widely predicted to win the July vote following Cambodia’s Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in November.