Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, pictured at the World Economic Forum in May 2017, is pressuring The Cambodia Daily to pay a disputed tax bill or close. (AFP/STR)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, pictured at the World Economic Forum in May 2017, is pressuring The Cambodia Daily to pay a disputed tax bill or close. (AFP/STR)

Cambodia threatens to shutter newspaper on tax evasion accusation

Bangkok, August 24, 2017–Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen should revoke his threat to forcibly close The Cambodia Daily newspaper and stop using unproven tax evasion allegations to pressure and threaten the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 5, the Cambodian Finance Ministry’s tax department sent a letter to The Cambodia Daily claiming that it owed US$6.3 million in unpaid taxes dating back to 2007, according to media reports. The letter said that the English-language publication had 30 days to pay or face closure and seizure of its assets, the reports said. The Ministry of Information today refused to renew the newspaper’s license until the tax issue was resolved, according to reports.

On August 22, Hun Sen referred to the newspaper as a “thief” and said that its American owners should either pay the tax bill or “pack up and go,” the paper reported. The Prime Minister’s comments came in response to a written appeal from the paper’s owner asking Hun Sen to meet with deputy publisher, Deborah Krisher-Steele, to prevent the paper’s shutdown, the reports said.

The paper has disputed that it owes the amount claimed by tax authorities and said that it would agree to a full audit, according to reports.

The Cambodia Daily editor-in-chief Jodie Dejonge told CPJ that at a World Economic Forum meeting in May, Hun Sen singled out the newspaper for its critical coverage and referred to its reporters as “servants of foreigners.” She told CPJ the paper expected to be raided and closed by authorities on September 4, the tax department’s deadline for payment.

“Cambodian authorities should stop threatening to close The Cambodia Daily for alleged tax evasion and allow it to continue publishing without fear of reprisal,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “Hun Sen’s government is using the tax department to silence one of Cambodia’s most prominent independent newspapers. The threat of forced closure is a clear danger to press freedom.”

The Cambodia Daily was founded in 1993 by its long-time American publisher Bernard Krisher. The paper was incorporated as a non-profit organization that the paper says has made over US$39 million in charitable donations over the years that should be counted as deductions in any back taxes it may owe.

Other foreign media outlets, including the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, have received letters in recent weeks inquiring about their tax standing and registration status, according to press reports.

RFA spokesman Rohit Mahajan told CPJ by email that the government’s “sudden unilateral” demand for documentation was in line with an “increasing and worrisome pattern of intimidation of RFA and other international broadcasters.”

On August 21, the Ministry of Information revoked the license and ordered the closure of all relay stations of Mohanokor Radio station, a local broadcaster which sells air time to both RFA and VOA, according to news reports. The ministry did not give a reason for the order, the reports said.