PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The new owner of a newspaper considered the sole remaining independent media voice in Cambodia fired its editor on Monday for publishing a story about the publication’s sale and the purchaser’s alleged links to the government, adding to doubts it will continue to perform the watchdog function of a free press.
The dismissal of Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions of the Phnom Penh Post, was followed by the resignations in protest of at least four senior editorial personnel.
The developments inside the newsroom were reported by several remaining staff members in near-real time on Twitter. More than 20 current and former staff members signed a statement expressing their “disgust” over the new owner’s ordering that the story be taken down from the newspaper’s website.
The newspaper’s sale by Australian businessman Bill Clough to Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, a public relations executive in Malaysia, was announced Sunday. The value of the sale has not been announced.
The Post reported that his PR company had done business in the past for the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has curtailed press freedom ahead of a July general election. It pointed out additional connections, some indirect, which he is alleged to have with Cambodian ruling circles.
Kay Kimsong, who had worked at the Post for 10 years, told The Associated Press that the representative of the newspaper’s new owner had told him he made a big mistake by allowing the publication on the front page of the article saying a PR firm linked to the prime minister had bought the Post.
“The owner has complained that I allowed the editorial team to publish the story of the buying and selling of the paper that affected to the interests of the paper as well as the image of the owner,” Kay Kimsong said. “I have done nothing wrong. I acted according to journalistic professionalism, but the company said they cannot keep me in my position.”
He said he would not challenge his termination in court because the new owner said he would be compensated under the labour law.
The Post was founded in 1992 as Cambodia sought to re-establish stability and democracy after the tumult of genocidal Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s and subsequent fighting between its guerrillas and the communist government that succeeded it. Published fortnightly, it established a high standard of Western-style journalism and employed many early-career Westerners as reporters and editors.
In recent months the Post, which became a daily after Clough bought it in 2008, was reported to also have faced a large bill for back taxes, but Clough’s statement on Sunday said the matter had been settled, without giving details.
The Post’s main English-language rival, the Cambodia Daily, shut its doors last year after being presented with an onerous tax bill, an action that many believe was politically motivated.
Hun Sen’s government has shuttered virtually all independent media and convinced the courts to dissolve the only credible opposition party ahead of July’s polls.
A third English-language newspaper in Cambodia, Khmer Times, is owned by a Malaysian and is seen as an uncritical voice that is close to the government.
Sivakumar, in the sale’s announcements issued separately by himself and Clough, was described as having a background as an experienced journalist and representing a strong investment group from Malaysia. However, he appears to be virtually unknown in journalism circles in Cambodia and Malaysia. He is the managing director of ASIA PR, a public relations firm in Malaysia.
The two authors of the Post’s contentious article both announced their resignations on Twitter.
“After being ordered to remove my story regarding the sale of the Phnom Penh Post from the website by new management, I refused and offered my resignation, which was accepted. I wish the fantastic journalists at The Post all the best,” wrote business editor Brendan O’Byrne.