In 1992 an American called Michael Hayes, disappointed on being told that there were no English-language newspapers to read at breakfast in Phnom Penh, decided he should start one.
He founded and subsequently ran the Phnom Penh Post for 16 years, publishing it fortnightly as a tabloid, printing it in Bangkok. The paper was often home to a cast of stellar journalists, attracted by the paper’s relaxed atmosphere, as well as enjoying the opportunity to work in a fascinating country, struggling to establish democracy in a shattered and poverty-stricken environment.
In 2008 an exhausted Hayes sold the Post to an Australian mining magnate called Bill Clough. Clough took the paper daily, modernised its operations and invested heavily in it. Unfortunately, he unwittingly installed a number of venal and incompetent people in senior management positions, but the editorial staff were generally highly skilled and committed, both to the paper and to Cambodia.
Over the next ten years, the Post distinguished itself through the strength of its coverage of issues that were important in Cambodia: illegal logging, land rights, factory conditions, women’s issues and government corruption. This was recognised by the winning of some 30 Society of Publishers’ in Asia (SOPA) Awards in the period for the paper’s work.
In late 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, facing a looming general election he was unlikely to win legitimately, took steps to win illegitimately. He jailed or forced into exile the heads of the opposition party, closed the party down, shut down numerous radio stations, and announced that the country’s only other worthwhile English-language newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, was hit with a $6.3m tax bill that it couldn’t pay. It closed down in September 2017. The writing was on the wall for the Phnom Penh Post.
Earlier this year, the Cambodian tax department demanded $3.9m from the Post. Clough, seeing the way the wind was blowing, announced 6 May that he had sold the paper, and that the tax problem had magically disappeared too.
The new owner of the Post, a Malaysian called Sivakumar Ganapathy, issued a statement. “We would like to assure all readers and followers of The Phnom Penh Post that as the new owner, we are fully committed to upholding the paper’s 26-year-old legacy and editorial principles/independence without infringing any relevant laws and regulations of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
However, what the statement didn’t mention was that Sivakumar Ganapathy is the head of Asia PR, a Malaysia-based firm whose clients included Cambodia and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Indeed, the company boasted that one of its jobs was “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat”, which rather belies their professional credentials, by not making much sense.
Journalists at the Post naturally thought this was quite a good story, and wrote it, and put it on the front page. Predictably, however, the new owner was incandescent with rage. The next day he issued a statement, claiming that the paper got important facts wrong, including his own name (it is, apparently, not Sivakumar Ganapathy, but rather Sivakumar S. Ganapathy, a crucial distinction,) and complained that his job was reported as “an executive” and “executive director” of Asia PR rather than CEO and managing director.
Sivakumar called the piece “a disgrace and an insult to the independence claim of the newspaper” and said it “borders on internal sabotage.” In a line we particularly enjoyed, he said that a particular paragraph of the story “wreaks of careless reporting/journalism.”
He then fired the editor in chief, which precipitated a mass walk out. Thirteen staff, including the managing and business editors, have tendered their resignations. There are now no foreign reporters on the paper.
Without wishing to impugn the skills and commitment of Khmer journalists, it is certainly harder for them to stand up to the lure of self-censorship in the face of an often-violent dictatorship: with no families to feed, foreign journalists provided a bulwark against the wholesale suborning of the press in Cambodia.
With this collapse of the paper’s credibility, what will happen to the Post?
Rupert Winchester, a former reporter at the Phnom Penh Post, is a contributing editor at Mekong Review.