Independent Cambodian paper shuts in face of tax demand

A portion of the front page of Thursday’s edition of The Cambodia Daily is pictured. (Retrieved from facebook.com/withoutfearorfavor)

PHNOM PENH -- An independent English-language newspaper in Cambodia said on Sunday it was ceasing publication after Prime Minister Hun Sen's government ordered it to pay a huge tax bill amid a growing campaign against critical voices ahead of next year's election.

The Cambodia Daily, known for critical coverage of issues such as corruption, human rights and the environment, was ordered to shut down if it could not pay 25.7 billion riels (about 212 million baht) to cover 10 years of back taxes by Monday.

"It will cease publication as of September 4, 2017," the newspaper said. "After 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia's free press."

The publication was founded in 1993 by an American journalist, making it a particular target for Hun Sen, who has accused the United States of plotting with the opposition against his government.

The company which published the newspaper, The Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co., was purchased in April by Deborah Krisher-Steele from her father, Bernard Krisher. 

The General Department of Taxation had warned it would shut the newspaper and confiscate its assets if 25.7 billion riels in taxes owed from 2007 through 2016 was not fully paid by Sept 4. 

On Sunday, The Cambodia Daily disputed when tax became payable and amounts. 
"In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations. Instead, the Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding," it said. 

The Cambodia Daily said like every English-language newspaper in Cambodia, it operates at a loss. 
"It has continued because it operates on a shoestring and the Krisher family has been willing to absorb those losses in order to help Cambodia create a free press and a tradition of independent journalism," the newspaper said. 

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades and has shown no signs of willingness to relinquish power, last month stepped up attacks on the media and non-governmental organizations.

His Cambodian People's Party won local elections in June, but the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) also did well, increasing expectations of a close contest in the coming general election.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested in a police raid on his home early on Sunday after Hun Sen accused him of treason with the backing of the United States.

In a speech on Sunday, Hun Sen defended his deadline to The Cambodia Daily to pay its taxes, according to pro-government news outlet Fresh News.

"When we tax them, they said we shut down press freedom," Hun Sen was quoted as saying. "When doing businesses, you have to pay tax. But when they didn't pay and we asked them to leave the country, they said we are a dictatorship," he added.

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