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Fears as Cambodia's 'last independent' newspaper sold

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    Agence France-Presse

Phnom Penh | Sun, May 6, 2018 | 11:27 pm
Fears as Cambodia's 'last independent' newspaper sold Political Man:Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (middle C, in red) and his wife Bun Rany (middle L, in white top) offer prayers in front of Buddhist monks at the historic Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap province on December 3, 2017. Thousands of orange-clad monks joined Cambodian Premier Hun Sen on December 3 for a prayer ceremony by the famed Angkor temple lauding (AFP/Khem Sovannara)

A newspaper hailed as Cambodia's last independent English daily has been sold to a Malaysian investor with apparent business links to premier Hun Sen, rattling a journalist community that has been battered by the strongman ahead of elections. 

Bill Clough, the Australian publisher of the 26-year-old Phnom Penh Post, said in a statement Saturday that the paper had been purchased by a Malaysian investor identified solely as "Sivakumar G".

The announcement did not disclose the price of the sale or any information on the new owner's other ventures. 

But a person close to the matter confirmed to AFP that the buyer is the head of Asia PR, a public relations firm based in Kuala Lumpur whose website describes its CEO "Siva Kumar G" as a journalist by training. 

The website lists as a former client Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government stands accused of a sweeping crackdown on independent media, NGOs and rival politicians ahead of July polls.

An Asia PR spokeswoman declined to comment.

The sale, which caught the newspaper's staff by surprise, swiftly raised concerns about a contracting space for independent media in a country that lost its other main English newspaper last year.

"The Post is really the last remaining newspaper that comes out every day and does long investigations on corruption, illegal logging and politics," said Abby Seiff, a Cambodia-based freelance journalist and former Phnom Penh Post editor.

"The journalist community is concerned about what the implication (of the sale) could be. It's just two months until the election and there's not much independent media left," she added.

In his statement, former owner Clough acknowledged that "turbulence" in Cambodia ahead of elections had put a spotlight on the Phnom Penh Post and left it as "the last remaining truly independent media group in the country".

The Post's chief rival, the Cambodia Daily, was forced to shut in August 2017 after it was handed an unpayable tax bill -- announcing its closure the same day authorities arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges.

The crackdown also saw dozens of radio stations taken off the air and the jailing of two reporters from Radio Free Asia, which shut its bureau after 20 years due to a series of legal threats.

Cambodia fell 10 places in this year's media freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, which described the country as hosting a "climate of terror that has drastically curtailed press freedom". 

In recent months local media had reported that the Phnom Penh Post was facing tax troubles.

Clough's statement said "publicised tax claims" had been settled with the government last week and that the paper now faces "no threat to its ability to continue its work".

Chad Williams, a former Phnom Penh Post editor-in-chief, said the quick settling of the tax bill and appearance of a buyer "strongly suggests the government approves of the sale."

"And it's hard to imagine they would approve if they thought the new ownership planned to maintain the paper's role as the country's sole remaining watchdog," he added.

The Post, founded by American journalist Michael Hayes in 1992, is seen as a key pillar of the country's fragile democracy, which observers say has taken a nosedive in recent years as Hun Sen clears out opposition politicians and other critical voices.

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