Cambodian Ministry of Information on Thursday claimed its shuttering of 15 radio stations across the country was not targeted at independent broadcasters, and took aim at the Cambodia Daily for failing to pay a huge tax bill, hours after the US State Department labelled the tax measure exorbitant and biased.
On August 21, Phnom Penh-based Moha Nokor – a radio station airing shows produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the Cambodia National Rescue Party – and its three provincial affiliates were asked to stop broadcasting and to shut down operations for allegedly violating their contract with the ministry.
Meanwhile, near-identical documents on the Information Ministry’s website showed that seven other media owners were asked to stop broadcasting from the 11 radio stations they owned across 10 provinces, in line with ministry spokesman Ouk Kimseng’s claim on Wednesday that more than 10 stations would be closed.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of independent news outlet Voice of Democracy, said broadcaster Sarika FM had cited “administrative and technical” reasons for taking its content off the air.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on Thursday maintained that the closures were not linked to the station’s programming – a claim keenly contested on Wednesday by CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann – but because they had failed to report how much airtime they were selling, and to whom.
“So some radios have not asked for permission from the ministry. The ministry has to shut them down in order to uphold the law on media,” he said, adding that VOA and RFA broadcasts were still available on other stations.
Kanharith said the directive was in line with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call for authorities to ensure there wasn’t a repeat of the 2013 post-election protests, saying media reports questioning the soundness of ink used for voting, accusations of voter fraud and false reports on votes being cast by “Yuon”, a derogatory term for ethnic Vietnamese, fuelled the demonstrations.
Kanharith said the radio station run by the Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia (WMC) had similarly erred by giving more airtime to RFA and VOA, but had been granted leeway in light of its social work.
The closures come as part of a government clampdown on NGOs and media organisations, which have found themselves answering to the Tax Department.
The Cambodia Daily has been singled out with a $6.3 million tax bill that was leaked to the media, with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Tax Department Director Kong Vibol asking the English-language paper to pay up or face closure.
Shifting his focus to the Daily, Kanharith made two new claims on Thursaday – that the Daily’s staffers had leaked a document showing their own $6.3 million tax bill, and that a foreign-owned news outlet in Cambodia had reported the Daily’s alleged tax fraud.
“If the tax man had leaked it, he would leak all the details. Therefore the one who leaked it was from the taxpayer,” he said.
“I cannot talk about it since I do not want the problem to happen, but they [the foreign-owned newspaper] have paid the tax. So they have demanded for two years already to tell Cambodia Daily [to] pay the tax so that they can compete fairly,” he said.
Kanharith’s comments come shortly after US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert pulled up the government for targeting the Daily and other independent news organisations, saying US Ambassador William Heidt had taken up the issue with the Tax Department.
“So our ambassador has had conversations with the head of what I’ll just refer to as the tax agency there to try to get them to regard taxes or impose taxes in a fair and neutral fashion,” she said on Wednesday.
Referring to Cambodian government officials’ frequent use of US President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as a justification for similar assails in Cambodia, a reporter questioned Nauert if Trump’s remarks undermined the State Department’s push for free speech across the world.
“Our conversations between the ambassador and his counterparts and also the prime minister of Cambodia – I do not anticipate that changing,” she said. “We care about freedom of the press; that’s not going to change.”
Reacting to Kanharith’s allegations, Daily Deputy Publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele once again placed the blame at the feet of “government mouthpiece” Fresh News for leaking the tax assessment.
“If the Minister really is at a loss for who is leaking, perhaps he could ask his own mouthpiece,” she said in an email, adding the tax bill was a thinly veiled attempt to “seize a foreign investor’s assets”.
The Tax Department and Krisher-Steele have tussled for the past three weeks on the fairness of the purported $6.3 million in back taxes and penalties. Krisher-Steele has said she was unaware of the “debt” she took over when buying the newspaper from her father and founder Bernard Krisher and asked that his charitable donations – in the tens of millions of dollars – be accounted for in the assessment.
Tax authorities have refused both those claims and, in a detailed rebuttal, said the acquisition of a company was never exclusive of its financial liabilities and that Krisher’s charitable activities were never reported.
Douglas-Steele, the newspaper’s general manager, said he will meet with the tax authorities today and would be accompanied by the outlet’s operations manager and an accountant.
“I’ll take the meeting, take notes and request information on how they arrived at the $6.3 million figure and why a process that should take many months in accordance with the law is being done in days,” he said.