Fearless newspaper meets its end as Cambodia clamps down on free press

A Cambodian man reads the English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh on September 4, 2017. One of Cambodia's few remaining independent newspapers, its publishers said Monday's edition would be its last after it was slapped with a multi-million dollar tax bill they say was politically motivated. Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy via AFP/Getty.

At first glance, The Cambodia Daily could have been mistaken for a community pamphlet, with its flimsy, letter-size pages. But the understated format belied the journalistic rigor and strident reporting of the paper, which on Monday produced a defiant final lead headline amid a crackdown on the media, non-governmental organizations, and the leading opposition party in Cambodia: “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship.” It was firmly aimed at Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had been threatening for years to close the scrappy publication that carried the motto, “All the News Without Fear or Favor.”

One former staffer, Ethan Plaut, now a fellow at Stanford University, summed up the newspaper’s boldness in one of many elegies penned by alumni in its final days: “Damn, the Daily burned hot while it lasted.”

Plaut was among a dozen current and former Daily journalists who spoke with CJR via email, phone, social media, and in person about a formidable institution that had an outsized impact beyond Cambodia’s borders. Many of the paper’s foreign alumni now work at top publications, including The Atlantic and The Times of London, while its Cambodian staffers have gone on to work in the country as correspondents for news wires and in senior positions with other media outlets. (I was a deputy managing editor of the paper between 2014 and 2015, and although my tenure was relatively brief, like many who’ve passed through its doors, it was the defining experience of my career to date.)

The last night at The Cambodia Daily turned out to be much like its first nights: reporters and editors scrambling to produce a newspaper against the odds. Knowing that their days were numbered, having been ordered by the government to pay a contested $6.3 million tax bill or close on Monday, the Daily’s editors had been preparing a largely commemorative issue. In its final days, government officials refused to speak to its journalists, the Ministry of Information revoked its licence, and advertisers pulled out.

The concept of a free press was new to them, but they were eager to learn, and their dedication turned out to be truly heroic.”

 When Robin McDowell talked her way into a job helping to set up the Cambodia Daily in 1993, the fresh-eyed Columbia Journalism School grad landed in a country still emerging from the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge and decades of civil war.

She was hired by publisher Bernard Krisher, a former Newsweek correspondent who envisioned a newspaper that would help to rebuild Cambodian society in a democratic mold. Along with fellow editor Barton Biggs, McDowell says she spent “20 hours a day eating, sleeping, and breathing in a sweltering makeshift office” opposite the Royal Palace as they worked to get the paper off the ground with a team of inexperienced local reporters.

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“The concept of a free press was new to them, but they were eager to learn, and their dedication turned out to be truly heroic,” McDowell, now an Associated Press investigative reporter who shared in a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2016, tells CJR. “You can imagine what it must have felt like to be a Cambodian young reporter, with memories of the 1975 to ‘79 genocidal regime, to knock on the door of the Khmer Rouge office.”

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With less than 12 hours until the final edition was to go to press, police raided Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha’s home, arresting him just after midnight. As events took a dramatic turn, reporters raced to track down his whereabouts (he was transferred to a prison three hours’ drive from the capital, Phnom Penh, and on Tuesday the government charged him with treason). The newspaper produced a live blog that was updated through the early hours of Sunday morning, then turned around to fill the paper with news before 58 staff members lost their jobs.

The government gave the newspaper one month to pay $6.3 million in back taxes, which Japan-based deputy publisher Deborah Krisher Steele tells CJR was “based on an assumption that it was making 20 percent profit, while acknowledging that it’s been running [at a loss].” If it didn’t pay, the government said, the paper’s assets would be seized and its bank accounts frozen. On Monday, the tax department issued a letter banning Douglas Steele, the newspaper’s general manager and Krisher Steele’s husband, from leaving the country until the money is paid. He says he does not want to leave, anyway.

Hun Sen had earlier said the publishers had a straightforward choice: to pay the bill or “pack up and go”–but observers countered that the newspaper’s closure was part of a systematic attempt by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to muzzle independent media outlets ahead of crucial national elections scheduled for July 2018.

The government has effectively silenced local radio broadcaster Voice of Democracy and the US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America in recent weeks. About two dozen FM radio stations that transmitted the networks either shut down or pulled their programming to comply with government demands.

Radio Free Asia spokesman Rohit Mahajan says the network–the most popular international radio broadcaster in the country–has been inundated with people “calling, emailing, and contacting [the network] through social media.” VOA is faring slightly better, according to public relations officer Michelle Harris, with one AM station still delivering broadcasts to “most parts of the country.”

In an August 23 statement, John F. Lansing, CEO and director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees both networks, called for the Cambodian government to reverse the decision to force the broadcasters off air. “This disturbing development is part of a pattern of intimidation and harassment of independent news sources that coincides with the runup to the 2018 elections,” he said.

The shutdown came at a time when international attention is largely elsewhere, and Cambodia’s once near-total reliance on Western aid donors is diminishing as China steps into the void, meaning denouncements from the US and others have not had any impact. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s war of words on the press was used by Cambodian officials earlier this year to justify similar threats against independent media.

Many more Cambodians will be directly affected by the closure of radio networks than the Daily, one of the country’s two independent English-language newspapers, along with the Phnom Penh Post. The Daily printed about 4,000 copies a day, but in recent years had gained a much wider audience online. Before the shutdown, Editor in Chief Jodie DeJonge told CJR any closure would undoubtedly be felt outside its immediate readership. “It’s true that in some ways the Daily’s audience has always been the opinion leaders in the country. At the same time, its influence goes beyond those people.”

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An outpouring of support on its Facebook page was testament to its standing with Cambodians. Many also used the paper, which carried a Khmer-language supplement, to help improve their English. “It’s like food for their brain,” says former reporter Prak Chan Thul, now a Cambodia correspondent for Reuters. “It’s a part of their lives.”

Almost all remaining Khmer-language media outlets are owned by elites with ties to the government and rarely produce critical news. Although in days past, Hun Sen pointed to the Daily as an example of Cambodia’s free press, Reporters Without Borders gave the country a low ranking in its most recent annual press freedom index.

Senior Daily editor Van Roeun, who spent much of his childhood as a refugee on the Thai-Cambodia border, first came across the newspaper in 1994 while teaching at a Buddhist pagoda in Battambang province. “It was only four pages in Khmer and English,” he says. “There were lots of foreign names like [syndicated articles from] The New York Times and Washington Post. I felt it was going to be a big newspaper in Cambodia.”

And in a country that had been decimated in the Khmer Rouge era, during which an estimated two million people were killed, putting out the newspaper was often harrowing. Illegal logging, official corruption, and human rights violations were longtime staples, as were the political machinations of a country struggling, but often failing, to achieve true democracy.

Roeun began working for the Daily in January 1997. Six months later, he was bunkered down inside newspaper’s offices to wait out fighting on the streets of Phnom Penh between armed factions of an uneasy coalition government. Trapped by soldiers prowling the capital, there was no way to get the latest edition to the printing house–which, like the rest of the city’s businesses, was closed anyway. “We didn’t have a printer, just a Xerox copier. One of the editors made copies and distributed it to some places,” he says.

It was one of many occasions the newspaper would come close to missing an edition. It never did, according to those I asked.

Ryun Patterson, who was the night editor from 1999 to 2003, says makeshift equipment and low budgets nearly prevented the paper from going to print several times during his tenure: On one occasion, the paper ran out of printer toner late on a Sunday night because Krisher, who kept a tight rein on administrative expenses, wouldn’t allow staff to keep more than two cartridges in stock; on another, thousands of flying termites hatched out of the walls. “It’s a miracle that we didn’t miss a day,” he says.

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Reporters also faced myriad threats for their work over the years. Kevin Doyle, the longest-serving editor in chief from 2004 to 2014, spent three days in jail after reporting on an influx of Montagnard refugees from Vietnam in the remote Ratanakiri province. Others, such as former Daily journalists Phorn Bopha and Olesia Plokhii, found their lives in immediate danger. The pair was in the vehicle when environmental activist Chut Wutty was gunned down by a military police officer in April 2012. And two veteran Daily journalists, Cambodian Aun Pheap and Canadian Zsombor Peter, still have a court case hanging over them that was brought by a local official and villagers in response to their apparently routine reporting on local elections in June. “There was always sense of intimidation and threats,” says Doyle. “It was part of the territory.”

One of the last bastions of old-school, no-bullshit journalism.”

News of the paper’s shutdown reverberated around the globe, rallying foreign alumni. Aria Danaparamita, a former weekend editor who is now studying at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, tweeted that the paper was “one of the last bastions of old-school, no-bullshit journalism.”

James Kanter, who served as editor in chief from 1995 to 1997 and is now an EU correspondent for The New York Times, says that seeing young Cambodians who had survived war and trauma embrace values such as freedom of expression was “a daily privilege.” “Losing the Daily would mean losing part of the DNA that has shaped Cambodia’s postwar rebirth,” he told CJR before the closure.

Equipping Cambodians with the skills to tell their country’s stories was one of the newspaper’s core goals. Among the beneficiaries of that training was Leng Len, who interned at the paper in 2012 and recently became its last recruit. “On September 9, it would be my two months,” she says. “I’m just devastated. I came here because I wanted to be able to do real journalism.”

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As with most news organizations, the Daily was in many ways an imperfect beast. DeJonge, who became editor in chief in April after joining the paper in 2016, acknowledges that Krisher, who is now 86 and in failing health, could have done more to protect the newspaper from attack. The founder had a close association with the late King Norodom Sihanouk, a devoted reader of the paper whose influence helped to shield it until his death in 2012. But the newspaper registered with the tax department only in April, after Krisher’s daughter bought some of the Daily’s assets from her father and set up a new company.

With Trump’s continuing verbal attacks on the press, DeJonge implores US media outlets to be vigilant in light of the Daily’s fate. “Take a look at what’s happening in Cambodia–this could happen in the US, too. It doesn’t take much for the free press to become a press under siege,” she says. “So be strong, and do whatever you can in the very early stages to protect what you’ve got. Because we should be a cautionary tale.”

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Holly Robertson is a freelance journalist who was deputy managing editor of The Cambodia Daily from 2014 to 2015.