Cambodia threatens purge of critical media and US charity

As general election looms, prime minister Hun Sen tells English-language newspaper Cambodia Daily to pay $6m tax bill or leave

Cambodian PM Hun Sen
Cambodian PM Hun Sen faces what many believe will be a close contest in next year’s general election. Photograph: Heng Sinith/AP

Cambodia has threatened to close three foreign media outlets and a US charity, accusing them of operating illegally or owing millions in back taxes, in what appears to be a coordinated purge of government critics.

The Cambodia Daily, one of three English-language daily newspapers in the country, was handed a $6.3m (£4.9m) tax bill and threatened with closure if it does not pay by 4 September.

Two US government-funded but independent radio broadcasters, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, have been accused of not registering with the tax department and not operating on official media licences.

The prime minister, Hun Sen, one of the world’s most notorious autocrats, who has ruled the south-east Asian country for three decades, has become increasingly anxious about any criticism before a general election next year.

The former Khmer Rouge commander has shown no willingness to relinquish power. He faces what many believe will be a close contest after the opposition made gains in June’s local elections.

On Tuesday, Hun Sen branded the Cambodia Daily as a “thief” and warned the company: “If you don’t pay taxes, pack your bag and leave.”

The Daily’s deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, whose father launched the paper in 1993, said the tax figure appeared to have been pulled “out of a hat without any justification” or audit of the company.

“This is clearly a tax bill that is not meant to be paid but whose purpose is to close down the Cambodia Daily,” she said.

The editor-in-chief, Jodie DeJonge, said the paper had been set up in part to train a new generation of local journalists, an aspiration that would be lost if the paper closed.

“I was talking to some of the Daily’s reporters today and they said they were not here for the pay cheques. They were here for the news and the ability to change society,” she said.

DeJonge said the newsroom still had hopes that the threat of imminent closure could be rescinded. “We think this has clearly gone beyond a tax issue.”

The purge continued on Wednesday when the foreign affairs ministry ordered the US-based National Democratic Institute to halt operations in Cambodia and gave its international staff one week to leave the country. The ministry alleged NDI had failed to follow registration requirements.

NDI, a nonprofit chaired by the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, says it supports democratic institutions and practices. The body had operated in Cambodia “with total contempt” despite warnings, the ministry statement said.

The Guardian has contacted NDI, RFA and VOA for comment.

Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s director of public affairs, was quoted in the Cambodia Daily as saying the “sudden unilateral action” by the government was in line “with the increasing and worrisome pattern of intimidation of RFA and other international broadcasters.”

George Mackenzie, VOA’s public affairs specialist, was quoting in the same article as saying the outlet had heard “conflicting information provided to us from various government agencies”. He added that the dispute would not affect VOA broadcasts in Cambodia.

Forcing three media outlets and a nonprofit to close in one swoop will remove a large chunk of objective reporting in Cambodia, especially on corruption, the environment and human rights abuses.

In February the Cambodia Daily reported on an academic paper that alleged Hun Sen’s rule was a “personalist dictatorship”. A week ago it published an investigation revealing that top staff members at Cambodia’s largest human rights organisations were suffering “intensifying levels of harassment, surveillance, intimidation and threats” before the general election.

Hun Sen has repeatedly lashed out at non-governmental organisations, especially after criticism from election monitors.

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