New start or sad end for Cambodia’s last free newspaper?

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A man holds a copy of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Saturday’s announcement of the sale of The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s oldest and most respected newspaper, came as no surprise to many who had been following recent events in the country.

Rumors had circulated for months about the fate of the country’s last independent English-language newspaper after it was revealed the owners had been hit with a large and very controversial tax bill on top of a lawsuit for unfair dismissal by a former chief executive officer (CEO).

According to the Phnom Penh-based website acenews, “ . . . The Phnom Penh Post is set to enter a new phase after its parent company was sold yesterday (May 5) to a Malaysian public relations company with links to the Cambodia government and rival Cambodian publisher Mohan Tirvgmanasam Banddam, better known as T Mohan, publisher of the rival Khmer Times.”

A disclaimer is required before continuing: I am a former editor-in-chief of both Khmer Times and The Phnom Penh Post.

I spent two years at Khmer Times and almost four years at The Phnom Penh Post, working for two publishers with vastly different agendas – one who believed in an independent media and another who, in my opinion, never fully grasped what an independent media was.

When news of The Phnom Penh Post being sold broke on Saturday, social media lit up with speculation about the new owners, their connections in Cambodia and in what direction they would take their new acquisition.

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper as a newly launched daily edition in a 2008 file photo. AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper as a newly launched daily edition in a 2008 file photo. AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Only time will tell which direction the new owners of The Phnom Penh Post will take the paper, but few are holding out hope it will be business as usual as it has been for the past 26 years.

Whichever way it goes in the future, those of us who worked there in the past, as well as those readers who relied on it for its honest and fearless reporting, will always remember it as one of the best little newspapers in Southeast Asia.

In its 26-year history, The Phnom Penh Post has now changed hands only three times. The founders and first owners, American Michael Hayes and his wife Cathleen, set the standards very high for the first 16 years.

Hayes, an expert in conflict resolution rather than journalism, came to Phnom Penh looking for work in the early ’90s as Cambodia was just starting to open up after decades of war, and quickly saw the need for a good quality English-language newspaper.

“I went for breakfast in a hotel and asked for a newspaper to read and was told there weren’t any. So I decided to start one,” Hayes said in an interview to mark the paper’s 20th anniversary.

Hayes was fortunate because at the time the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), a peacekeeping operation from 1992 to 1993, was in the process of organizing the first elections to kick-start the rehabilitation of the war-torn country.

Along with the multinational peacekeeping force came an international press corps, and many of those front-line journalists – battles were still raging against the remnants of the Khmer Rouge at the time – contributed to the Phnom Penh Post once they had filed their stories for their employers.

This gave Hayes access to contributions from not only some of the best journalists in the region, but access to information and contacts that were difficult to come by in the environment at the time.

Cambodia-Michael Hayes-Alan Parkhouse-Photo: Alan Parkhouse

Phnom Penh Post founder Michael Hayes and former Editor-in-Chief Alan Parkhouse. Photo: Alan Parkhouse

The Phnom Penh Post quickly built a reputation as the newspaper of record in Cambodia, with subscribers from London to Washington on the mailing list. Websites and the internet were not even pipe dreams in those days.

Hayes’ fortnightly editions of the paper had to be printed in Bangkok in those days, as there were no print shops with the capacity to print a newspaper in Phnom Penh.

We first met on one of his regular trips to Bangkok to print the paper and during that time he recruited a number of my colleagues from the Bangkok-based The Nation, where I was working at the time.

After 16 years of struggling to pay bills and salaries, Hayes eventually decided to sell the paper – it was hard to make money from a paper that was only printed once every two weeks.

The Phnom Penh Post changed hands for the second time when Hayes sold the paper to a group of shareholders led by Bill Clough and his family – wealthy Australians with a wide variety of business interests ranging from mining to oil and gas exploration.

Hayes insisted the new owners maintain the high standards he had set in the paper’s first 16 years and says he had that clause written into the contract.

To a degree, the second set of owners honored the commitment to Hayes as they took the paper from a fortnightly to a five-day a week publication. Credit must be given to Clough and his family for pumping money into the loss-making operation over the roughly nine-year period his family and partners owned the paper.

Cambodia-Bill Clough-Phnom Penh Post-Youtube

Former Phnom Penh Post owner Bill Clough. Photo: Youtube

If it wasn’t for the monthly injections of cash from the Clough family, the staff would not have been paid, bills would have rapidly mounted and the paper would have folded and gone out of business in a very short time.

During my time as editor-in-chief working for the second owners, the CEOs and publishers were changed, but the Clough family’s commitment to producing a quality, independent paper was never in question.

There was never any interference in the editorial content. The same cannot be said for the second publisher I worked for in Cambodia. At The Phnom Penh Post the onus was more on making the venture profitable, something the owners never achieved.

In the past two years, many things have changed in Cambodia, from the rapidly rising skyline to the flood of Chinese money and people entering the country.

Like many countries in the region, there has also been a rise in authoritarianism and a move away from democracy, in Cambodia’s case strongly linked to national elections scheduled for late July that premier Hun Sen’s party is nearly assured to win after banning the main opposition.

Along with that move away from democracy came a crackdown on the independent media. After the Cambodia Daily closed last year after being handed a multi-million dollar back tax bill and independent radio stations were knocked off the airwaves, The Phnom Penh Post was the last free man standing in Cambodia.

Many will now be watching to see if it stands tall or limps off into the shadows of self-censorship and mediocrity.

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