The purchase of The Phnom Penh Post by a Malaysian whose public relations firm lists Cambodia's long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen as a client is a "disaster" for media freedom ahead of a general election, an international rights group said on Monday.
In power for 33 years, Hun Sen and his allies have cracked down on perceived critics, opposition politicians, independent media and human rights groups ahead of the July 29 vote.
The sale of the English-language daily, which has been largely critical of the government, was announced on Saturday by Australian businessman Bill Clough, who had owned the newspaper since 2008.
The new owner is Malaysian investor Sivakumar Ganapathy, an executive director at Asia Public Relations Consultants Sdn Bhd, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.
The PR firm's website referred to "Cambodia and Hun Sen's entry into the Government seat" as one of its projects. It also described Ganapathy as leading a team managing "covert operations" for its clients. It did not elaborate.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the deal was a "disaster for media freedom", telling Reuters that "the only plausible rationale for this acquisition is to blunt the Post's critical coverage of the government."
Reuters called Asia PR's headquarters seeking comment, and was told that Ganapathy was not available. In response to an email, his assistant, Krishna Kumaar, said Ganapathy was expected to return in two weeks' time.
Calls to Asia PR's Phnom Penh office were unanswered.
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) issued a statement voicing its concerns "about the sale of The Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian investor whose PR company is connected to Prime Minister Hun Sen."
Huy Vannak, undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry, told Reuters on Monday that the government welcomed "all investors" to Cambodia.
He did not specifically address links between the newspaper's new owner and the government.
Around 30 radio stations were shut last year and The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, was closed after it was ordered to pay millions of dollars in back taxes by the government or face closure.
In a 2018 press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, Cambodia dropped 10 places from 132 to 142.
Founded in 1992, The Phnom Penh Post was reportedly slapped with a $5 million tax bill last year, according to reports by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In a statement on Saturday, Clough said the tax issue had been resolved, and that the sale was prompted by a "worldwide decline in market share for newspaper advertising" which had also been felt in Cambodia.