Sale of Cambodian newspaper sparks fears of crackdown on press freedom

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Crisis gripped Cambodia's last independent newspaper today as the editor-in-chief was sacked by its new owner over a front-page article on the sale, while several senior reporters resigned in protest at the apparent attack on editorial integrity.

The article, which was published on Sunday evening, confirmed that Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, CEO and managing director of Malaysia-based public relations firm Asia PR, was the new owner of the newspaper, which has been the nation's paper of record since 1992.

Several sources at the newspaper said there was a brief protest at its offices on Monday over the editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong's firing.

Staff were reportedly told that all future articles would need to be approved by a new editor-in-chief before publication.

"The Post has always been fiercely protective of its independence and I felt that order was a sign that that might be in jeopardy going forward", he said in the statement. Under government-related projects on the company's website it lists "Cambodia and Hun Sen's entry into the Government seat".

Journalists at the newspaper said that three other senior editorial staffers had resigned. It also described Ganapathy as leading a team managing "covert operations" for its clients.

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".

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Written by business editor Brendan O'Byrne and national reporter Ananth Baliga, who have both resigned, the article detailed Sivakumar's links to high ranking Cambodian and Malaysian officials.

The Post's sale may indicate that Mr. Hun Sun's administration has decided that it no longer needs to allow a free media to operate in the country as a concession for getting Western aid, said Shawn Crispin, the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in NY.

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 worldwide rights group said yesterday.

A story on the Phnom Penh Post website said the sale followed a wrongful termination suit brought by a former chief executive and a US$3.9 million tax bill from the government.

The newspaper's report had misspelled his name, he said, and stated he was an executive - not the chief executive - of the Asia PR firm. The Post claimed his PR business had done business for the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which includes curtailed press flexibility in front of a July complete election.

However there has been a recent crackdown on independent media. "Today it is clear that the editorial independence of Cambodia's last true independent media is at threat".

Cambodia ranked 142 out of 180 countries on the 2018 World Press Freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.