• A man reads the last and final issue of the Cambodia Daily Newspaper at a bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 04 September 2017. (EPA)
'The Cambodia Daily' - a leading English language newspaper in Cambodia, which has provided independent reporting in the country for the last 24 years - has been forced to close following a multimillion tax dispute with the government.
By
Marese O'Sullivan

5 Sep - 6:38 PM  UPDATED 5 Sep - 8:15 PM

The closure of the independent newspaper 'The Cambodia Daily' stemmed from a tax dispute that its publishers claimed was “politically motivated".

Government officials demanded that the paper pay an alleged $6.3 million tax bill by Monday September 4, or shut down their operations.

Based in Phnom Penh, the English-language paper has run since 1993, and was set up by American journalist Bernard Krisher.

It prided itself on being one of the country's solitary "independent" voices that was established to "provide a foundation for a free press in Cambodia", consistently criticising autocracy.

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The paper’s lead story in its final issue focused on the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha who is accused of treason. The headline proclaimed ‘Descent into Outright Dictatorship’ regarding prime minister Hun Sen’s political regime and his crackdown on media dissent.

The Daily has launched the careers of multiple reporters, including that of journalist Robin McDowell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for her investigation alongside two colleagues into labour abuses in Southeast Asia's fishing industry.

The paper is among a number of media outlets that the prime minister has ordered to be closed or to cease broadcasting, including the 'Voice of America' and 'Radio Free Asia', in the run-up to a general election next year.

In an online piece published on Monday, the Daily’s owner Deborah Krisher-Steele wrote: “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 Cambodia’s free press.

“In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations,” Ms Krisher-Steele added.

She insisted that the paper had been “targeted for an astronomical tax assessment” as well as “public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding”.

According to a report by the Phnom Penh Post, the paper’s publishers – namely Deborah Krisher-Steele and Douglas Eric Steele – are not permitted to leave Cambodia, in order to guarantee the payment is made.

It’s understood the Tax Department has outlined a directive to ensure that the Immigration Department prevents the pair from departing the country - and that Ms Krisher-Steele will be giving the paper's assets back to her father Mr Krisher.

A reporter from 'The Cambodia Daily', Leng Len, told Newsweek: “I feel completely empty and devastated to lose the chance to continue exercising the journalism skills I learned at journalism school.

"To me and to the readers, who are NGO workers, artists, private sector employees and the students who read English, the loss of the paper is a big one, the loss of an independent fact-checker.

“One thing that I know for sure is that we as media professionals have to stay true to our values in spite of these new developments. We have to continue fighting for our rights, for freedom of the press to report news without fear or favour.”

In a statement, the Australian Embassy in Cambodia said: “Australia is concerned about recent developments in Cambodia that threaten to narrow the political space, particularly the freedom for opposition parties, civil societies and media organisations to play their part in Cambodia’s wider democracy.”

The embassy is specifically concerned by Mr Sokha’s arrest, which it called a “further deterioration in the political situation”, and urged Cambodian authorities to “take all necessary steps to maintain an open democratic space in which all voices can be heard”.

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