Cambodia Daily closing

Statement by The Cambodia Daily, one of Cambodia’s three main English-language newspapers:

The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press.

As a result of extra-legal threats by the government to close the Daily, freeze its accounts and prosecute the new owner for the actions of the previous owner, The Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. is unable to operate The Cambodia Daily newspaper and it will cease publication as of September 4, 2017.

From a New York Times account:

For the reporters and editors of The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, Sunday was the end of an era as they prepared its final edition after 24 years in operation. […]

The Daily was ordered by the government to close its doors by Monday over allegations that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The newspaper will publish its last print edition on Monday morning.

Seems ominous in context:

In recent weeks, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered at least 15 radio stations to close or stop broadcasting programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The government also ordered the expulsion of the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy, nonprofit organization tied to the Democratic Party of the United States.

I can’t claim to have read The Daily, but this echoes what I’ve heard from others with direct knowledge:

Since its founding in 1993, the widely respected newspaper has been an incubator for a generation of young Cambodian and foreign journalists, and it has served as an independent voice in a country with little tradition of free expression.

Of course, the closure of the newspaper is very unfortunate for the editorial staff of 17 Cambodians and 17 foreigners, many of whom I’m sure are very dedicated to their jobs – especially the locals, who can’t simply pack their bags and skip town if they run afoul of the government. I wish them well.

However, I must say that the following fact (interestingly omitted by The Daily in its statement) gave me pause for thought:

Operating under the king’s sponsorship, Mr. Krisher [the founder] never registered the newspaper as a business or nonprofit organization.

But the newspaper’s association with royalty has long since faded. King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 and died in 2012. And Mr. Krisher, 86, who lives in Tokyo, is too ill to come to Cambodia to try to rescue the paper, said Douglas Steele, his son-in-law and The Daily’s general manager.

Mr. Krisher’s daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele, tried to normalize the business this year. Ms. Krisher-Steele purchased The Daily’s assets from her father in April and will return them, the paper said.

Wait, so the newspaper operated for over 23 years as a non-registered entity? Did I get that right? The Daily was not even a legal business, at a time when it employed 34 editorial staff?

Imagine trying that in the US. The IRS would be far from amused.

Now, I am not up on the Cambodian legal system, and I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of this case. Also, it is disturbing that Deborah Krisher-Steele’s husband, who is the legal representative of the newspaper’s owner in Phnom Penh, has reportedly been barred from leaving the country (Deborah is in Japan).

The lesson I take from this is that a business dependent for its survival on the whims of a king is inherently fragile, especially after that king’s death.

Freedom of the press is important, but so is covering your bases. Unless I am missing something, The Daily left itself wide open to this type of takedown.

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