Media

‘We’re going to be blind’: how Cambodia defeated its free press

By: Paul Millar, Tom O'Connell, Janelle Retka - Posted on: June 4, 2018 | Cambodia

Critics and human rights groups decry the end of an era of press freedom in Cambodia as the nation’s last independent newspaper is sold to the owner of a Malaysian “covert PR” firm, leaving Cambodians who once relied on a free press worrying that they’re now “going to be blind”

Staffers at the Phnom Penh Post weren’t sure what to expect when they arrived at work the first Monday morning after the sale of the paper to the majority owner of a Malaysian public relations firm. But by noon, a representative for new owner Sivakumar S. Ganapathy was demanding that an article about Ganapathy and the sale, “Phnom Penh Post sold to Malaysian investor”, be removed from the Post’s website.

For the Post piece that inflamed tensions and led to an exodus of editorial staff, reporters gathered their most tantalising information by simply visiting Ganapathy’s LinkedIn page and the website of his Malaysia-based public relations firm, Asia PR, where they found possible connections between the new Malaysian owner and Cambodia’s elite power structure, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Post found that the past client list on Asia PR’s website included “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat”, as well as KFC Holdings Berhad, which it noted is a fast food concern licensed by politically connected Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng. Asia PR opened a Phnom Penh branch in 2014.

That Asia PR is in the political spin business is apparent from a quick glance at its website. In a pitch to potential clients, its FAQ page describes how it can help shape politicians’ image using “covert PR”: “If the politician says he is good, nobody believes him. But if someone of credibility says the politician is good, the audience listens. If we exploit and explain an issue to prove that the politician is good, the audience is convinced.”

The demand to remove that article didn’t sit well with managing editor Stuart White, who refused and decided to resign instead. The order went through the ranks, with foreign editorial employees refusing to take down the piece.

Web editor Jenni Reid and the article’s authors Brendan O’Byrne and Ananth Baliga were the next to refuse and resign. Others who resigned in protest included CEO Marcus Holmes and digital editor Jodie DeJonge. Seven more foreign staff resigned the next day. But the Cambodian editor-in-chief, Kay Kimsong, didn’t have a chance to resign, he told Southeast Asia Globe reporters who visited the Post headquarters shortly after the resignations to find groups of staffers huddled in the halls, emotions running high.

“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,” said Kimsong. “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 front page of the Post featuring the controversial story covering the sale

Cambodia’s media crackdown came to a head last September with a litany of closures. The biggest outlet to fall was the Cambodia Daily, which was shuttered under the pretence of a $6.3 million tax bill it could not pay. A total of 32 radio frequencies were shut down and several journalists were arrested on dubious charges. Human Rights Watch has called for the government to drop what it calls “fabricated espionage charges” against Radio Free Asia journalists Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who were arrested last November.

In March, the government suddenly demanded the Post pay alleged back taxes of $3.9 million. The timing of the May sale coincided with an out-of-court settlement of that tax bill.

Several groups have raised the alarm over the Post takeover, including the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Its chairman Charles Santiago of the Malaysian Parliament delivered this stinging rebuke to the administration: “Having taken drastic steps to transform Cambodia into a de facto one-party state, it appears that Prime Minister Hun Sen believes that even one independent news outlet is too many and that only the complete end of press freedom in Cambodia can assure his reelection.”

During his first press conference since taking ownership of the paper last month, however, Ganapathy dismissed questions about the tax bill and said the purchase of the Post was purely a business decision. “It was an opportune time and opportune product, and we went for it,” he said. Anthony Galliano, an investment consultant to Ganapathy who was a “key man” in arranging the business deal, said the new owner was not involved in the bill’s disappearance: “[The tax bill] got a hell of a lot more attention from the seller, with a lot more resources and a lot more concentration on getting it resolved, with an offer on the table,” he told the press. “Given that the transaction had a deadline, there were significant resources from the seller to get it resolved.”

The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily were just beginning their two-decade-plus lives during the time of uneasy optimism after the nation’s first free elections in the post-Khmer Rouge period.

The Post was founded and started publishing in 1992, the year before those first free elections, becoming the country’s only independent English-language newspaper. Within months of the 1993 vote, its crosstown rival the Cambodia Daily published its first issue, with the two publications together reporting fearlessly on government corruption and violence, the country’s vast deforestation, forced evictions and human rights abuses, along with the country’s economic reconstruction.

Sivakumar S. Ganapathy (R), the new owner of the Phnom Penh Post, leaves a press conference in Phnom Penh after speaking to the press for the first time regarding his purchase of the paper Photo: Kith Serey / EPA-EFE

Together, they built what would eventually be known as one of the most independent media landscapes in Asia.

Until recently, these papers had operated independently of government approval or censorship, as a glance at their archives can attest.

“Since mid-November there has been a skyrocketing pattern of violence and intimidation against parties challenging the ruling State of Cambodia and their Cambodian People’s Party (CPP),” the Phnom Penh Post reported in 1993 of now- Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political group just months ahead of the elections. Murders, injuries and kidnapping had been reported to the UN body overseeing the vote – all against political opposition parties and human rights workers.

Two years before, Hun Sun signed the Paris Peace Accords, having led the country after helping the Vietnamese government overthrow the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, for which he had previously been a commander. This signalled the end of 21 years of civil war as Hun Sen welcomed the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia (Untac), which intended to administer the country, disarm its warring factions and oversee a fair and free election in the coming years. But Untac struggled to manage the country and to keep its promises for military peace or fully democratic elections. The CPP and remaining Khmer Rouge factions oversaw a bloody campaign season.

The week after the vote, the Post reported: “According to a report on political violence compiled by Untac’s Human Rights section, in just the 10 weeks preceding the elections there were 200 deaths, 338 injuries, and 114 abductions that Untac investigations determined to be ‘politically motivated.’”

“People who voted were concerned about the presence of government authorities at the polling booths,” a human rights worker told the Post at the time. “I was told that people were scared to vote in nearby polling stations so they chose to go to other locations.”

Despite a climate of intimidation, the CPP failed to win the vote, losing to the Funcinpec party led by King Norodom Sihanouk’s son Prince Ranariddh. But Hun Sen’s party refused to give up power to the UN’s election process, just as it had refused to disarm under the same organisation’s efforts. Hun Sen eventually agreed to be co-prime minister alongside Ranariddh before ousting him in a violent clash in 1997. He has since ruled the country with an increasingly tight fist.

With 2013 came the first vote where an opposition party was widely thought to have a fighting chance against the CPP since the election 20 years before, but the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), were shut out in a controversial election result that caused widespread protest. The opposition party carried the same momentum into last year’s local elections when they received more than three million votes, just under half of the national popular vote, failing to take power in the majority of communes. Since the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP under legal pretence last November, a CPP victory in July’s national election is all but certain.

After the close 2013 elections, Hun Sen seemed to recognise the significant role the press has in influencing the public, and promised reforms in a nearly six-and-a-half-hour speech in which he called out corrupt officials, imploring them “to use a mirror to look at yourself”, “take a bath to clean your body” and “scrub your body while bathing if it is plagued by dirty things”. But the 2017 media closures and intimidations suggest that he found strangling the media easier than following through on reforms.

In the battle for hearts and minds, it’s easier for fake news to win when there is no competition

For Astrid Norén-Nilsson, author of Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination and Democracy, it is the power of the people to witness their leaders at their most corrupt and unassailable – and the government’s desire to shut down that power – that has driven the silencing of the free press in Cambodia.

“At the most basic level, the media crackdown is about instating new rules for what can be articulated and what cannot, and, consequently, to change over time what can be politically imagined and what cannot,” she said. “Accessing and selectively sharing news is a main way for people in Cambodia to engage with national politics. Even in a context in which the government holds such strong control over key institutions, the reporting of the independent media was therefore, even in its most weakened state, always powerful.”

Less obvious than the government’s attacks on English-language media, perhaps, has been the ruling party’s widespread domination of Khmer-language media. Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Mana alone has extensive private media holdings across TV, print and radio, including the popular Bayon Radio and widely read Kampuchea Thmey daily newspaper – both known for their strident support for the CPP. With the shuttering of more than 30 radio frequencies across the country and the suppression of the nation’s last independent newspapers, media outlets owned by – or sympathetic to – powerful private interests with close ties to the CPP will be left with a monopoly on the truth, warn Cambodia watchers. According to Sophal Ear, political analyst and associate professor at Occidental College, Los Angeles, it is an outcome the government has long pursued.

“In the battle for hearts and minds, it’s easier for fake news to win when there is no competition,” he said. “The attempt here is to control the narrative. Suppress dissent, and you will have only pro-government voices. Of course, the next step is to suppress social media and be like China. [But] demographically, people obtain their news from Facebook in Cambodia. Unless you can control Facebook, you really do not control anything.”

A man reads the final issue of the Cambodia Daily at a bookstore in Phnom Penh Photo: Kith Serey / EPA-EFE

Reporting by the Post and the Daily, though their coverage has rarely led to real consequences for those in power, has introduced a level of transparency that many Cambodians have come to rely on. As of this writing, the Facebook page of the Khmer edition of the Post has 5.5m likes, while the English edition has less than a million.

A group of Khmer university students who spoke with Southeast Asia Globe on condition of anonymity felt the sale of the Post had effectively silenced the paper, along with the other English- and Khmer-language media outlets that have helped them form opinions on their government.

Although the students seek real news on Facebook, they said they do not feel safe posting anything on social media that could be construed as anti-government, citing the criminal case against Hun Sen critic Sam Sokha, who posted a video that showed her throwing her shoe at a CPP sign. One student thought the government would loosen its grip on the media after the election, but others were dubious. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said another student, who said his boss told him to cancel his company’s subscription to the Post after it was sold. “I feel the Post will become pro-government. I feel it.”

During Gathapany’s press conference, he implied as much. “Why do we need to be critical” of the government, he asked the press. “Where I come from, we report the facts.”

In many ways, the upset at the Post marks the end of the CPP’s quest for dominance over every facet of Cambodian life. Through years of private patronage and violent crackdowns on political rivals, the party has established its control not only over the nation’s police and armed forces, but also the Senate and National Assembly.

Last year’s dissolution of the opposition CNRP was in many ways the perfection of this network of domination. The CPP-controlled National Assembly and Senate passed legislation allowing for the dissolution of any party whose steering committee was linked to a crime. Leaked audio recordings allegedly of key opposition politicians were fed to pro-government media to stoke a campaign of innuendo against politicians including opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was accused of prostitution and, eventually, being in service to foreign powers. Sokha’s midnight arrest and detention for treason proved all the evidence the Supreme Court needed. The judge who handed down the sentence was himself a member of the CPP’s powerful permanent committee. And all the while, powerful figures within the armed forces threatened violent reprisal against any who dared take to the streets to protest.

Without redress at the ballot box, suggested Norén-Nilsson, the dilution of the free press would see Hun Sen’s government becoming increasingly unaccountable to the Cambodian people: “In the longer perspective, the Post, just as the Daily, offered daily news analysis – the absence of which will undoubtedly make it more difficult for their former readerships to assess the significance of developments from one day to the next. Cambodia’s political trajectory will become more opaque.”

English-language newspapers have enjoyed an unusual measure of editorial freedom in Cambodia by Southeast Asia standards since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords – even as Khmer-language media were kept under tighter state control. But that freedom has existed in a quivering bubble that was always threatening to burst under the pinprick glare of Hun Sen’s government, said Sebastian Strangio, a veteran reporter of the Phnom Penh Post and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

“Cambodia had this political system in which there was a certain amount of space for English-language media to publish in a way that was unique in the region,” Strangio told Southeast Asia Globe. “But that period has come to an end and the government is now applying the same controls that exist in the Khmer-language media against English-language outlets whose presence was always resented.”

Hun Sen and his Cambodia People’s Party have always bristled at what they perceived as a democratic model imposed upon Cambodia by the West, he said.

The smackdown on the media “has a ring of finality to it, which I’ve never seen before in Cambodia,” said Strangio. “It’s hard to say what will happen after the election. After Hun Sen’s power is secure, he may decide to loosen slightly the bounds of permissible dissent or he may simply shift the country into a more permanent form of de facto one-party rule… So we’ll have to wait and see. I think there could be some small concessions and loosenings, though I’m not holding my breath.”’

I worry that we will not have reliable news to read to know what’s really going on in our society. We’re going to be blind

Strangio suggests the crackdown is “Hun Sen’s final reckoning with forces that threaten to escape his control” – essentially, the leader has turned back the clock and taken the Kingdom back to its authoritarian past and “shrugged off the pretence of multiparty democracy”.

In the end, it’s Cambodians who should have the last say in what the media crackdown means to them and their future. The students who spoke with Southeast Asia Globe painted a blunt picture of the nation’s political outlook.

“Whoever’s on top can do something very quickly, close the independent media, arrest the biggest opposition leaders,” said the university student. “You can do all of these things without protest, without anything, without violence, without civil war. So why should our prime minister [allow dissent] again?… I worry that we will not have reliable news to read to know what’s really going on in our society. We’re going to be blind.”

This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.