Hours after the Cambodia Daily’s final edition went to print Monday morning with the front page headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship”, the tax department issued a statement telling immigration police to prevent the newspaper’s publishers from leaving the country.
Based on the tax law, the statement said, “the General Department of Taxation requests cooperation with General Department of Immigration to prevent travel out of Cambodia by Ms. Deborath [sic] Krisher Steele and Mr. Douglas Eric Steele, who are responsible, to push [them] to make the payment”.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said by telephone that the case would now be sent to court, but declined to say what measures might be taken against Douglas Steele, the general manager of the newspaper and son-in-law of founder and publisher Bernard Krisher.
“If you are under obligation to pay tax and you try to get away from paying tax there is a procedure. For the time being there is a due process to keep them from leaving Cambodia and they [the tax department] will seek the court to intervene in this matter,” Siphan said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly branded the Daily’s publishers “thieves” last month and has insisted that the move against one of the country’s oldest independent news outlets is not political.
The Daily’s publishers insist that it is, and made their stance clear in a statement issued on Sunday afternoon.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years, one month and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press,” the statement said.
The publishers acknowledged that while “there may well be a legitimate dispute between the tax department and the owners of the Daily over when tax became collectable and in what amount”, the government’s disregard for due process and use of “extra-legal threats” exposed the politically motivated nature of the case.
Steele, who was in the country as of last night, declined to comment when reached yesterday. His wife, who lives in Tokyo along with her father and is the newspaper’s deputy publisher, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Siphan, the government spokesman, said it was the Krisher family who was making the issue political in order to dodge the tax bill.
“The Daily itself is speaking with political intentions to cover up that they don’t want to pay taxes,” he said. “They wrote to the prime minister to help. This have nothing to do with prime minister – it is an issue with the department of taxation.”
Both Steele and US Ambassador William Heidt have met with tax officials over the past month in an attempt to reach a resolution over the tax bill, but to no avail.
=The shuttering of the Daily is seen by many as part of a wider government strategy to silence dissenting political voices in the run-up to next year’s national elections. The Information Ministry has banned radio stations outside Phnom Penh from carrying the US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, two of the main Khmer-language sources of independent news in a media landscape dominated by government-aligned outlets.
The ruling party’s assault on democracy was the subject of the Daily’s final front page story. During the early hours of the newspaper’s final day in operation, police arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha for alleged treason linked to a speech in which he spoke of US support for building Cambodia’s opposition movement.
Inside the final edition of the Daily was a statement from Krisher, a journalist and philanthropist who founded the newspaper in 1993.
“If the government doesn’t like the way I ran the paper for the past 24 years, they should come after me. I take full responsibility for how I operated. It they want to prosecute anyone, I will come back because I did this,” he wrote. “The charges against my newspaper is the regime’s thuggish attempt to disable our operations in haste.”
(Additional reporting from Colin Meyn, a previous editor at the Cambodia Daily)