Facing the end

Jodie DeJonge

Author: No Comments Share:
The final board-up at the Cambodia Daily, 3 September 2017. Photograph: Julia Grace-Sanders

On the 4th of August, the government-friendly news website Fresh News leaked documents from the tax department which alleged that the English-language newspaper the Cambodia Daily owed 25 billion riel, or US$6.3 million in taxes from the past decade. The paper, which had been operating for twenty-four years, had thirty days to pay up, or face closure. The staff were in shock, readers confused, and the owners scrambling to open the books and negotiate a resolution. 

As the paper’s editor-in-chief for barely five months, I found it difficult to make sense of what was happening or to comprehend how the situation became so serious so quickly. With only days until the deadline, I started to keep a diary, to record what would turn out to be the paper’s final days.

Day 1 (Friday, 25 August)

Every morning I wake up hopeful. There are messages of support from friends, strangers and former colleagues from the Associated Press. I read them as I sit on my terrace, metres from the cacophony of Street 178, Phnom Penh’s avenue of galleries and artisan shops, home to the Royal University of Fine Arts, the National Museum and a block from the Royal Palace. Street 178 stretches from Monivong Boulevard — the main north-south artery of Cambodia’s capital — to Sisowath Quay, the city’s popular promenade which runs alongside the Tonle Sap River. On the corner of Street 178 and Sisowath is the storied Foreign Correspondents Club, now, sadly, merely a restaurant for foreign tourists.

When I started at the Cambodia Daily in June 2016 — I had come from the China Daily — I marvelled at the press freedom in this corner of mainland Southeast Asia, the gutsiness of the Daily’s reporting, its fierce independence, its fearlessness. Its motto since its launch in 1993, “All the news without fear or favour”, captures that spirit. I wondered how it managed to keep it up for so long while so many other voices — the human rights defenders, the opposition party, the protesters — came under fire.

By April this year, when I took over as editor-in-chief, it seemed clear, however, that the Daily was facing a new kind of threat. The criticisms from the prime minister were more focussed. I am relatively new to Cambodia, so I wasn’t attuned to the intricacies and histories of its political culture. Cambodia-watchers reassure me that the Daily will survive, that a magnanimous Hun Sen will step in at the last moment. But Van Roeun, the Daily’s senior reporter, who has been here for years, says this time it’s different. So I stay hopeful, though I’m preparing for the worst.

Another reporter, Aun Pheap, who had to appear before a prosecutor in Ratanakiri province, in the north-east, earlier in the week to answer a complaint about his pre-election reporting, sends a message to his colleagues: 

“I’m writing to let all of you know that Cambodia Daily would continue to stay because I have received a telephone call from Soy Sopheap, a coordinator for government officials, saying that he is compromising to put an end of the case [sic]. ‘Please ask your upper-level to stop publishing that the closing of the Daily is involved in political issue. Please save face for the government and I’m now working to compromise the case’, he said by telephone on Friday morning, adding that the government will allow the Daily to pay $500 per month and the payment will be done within fifty years.”

Pheap is a gem, but this is madness.

Days 2 & 3 (the weekend)

We needed to get away. My partner and I land in Bangkok and arrive at our hotel just after midnight. Ahhh. We sleep in the next day. I want to ride along the klongs, to see how people live along the canals. The houses are lovely, gardens full of flowers and plants and cats. We meet an old man along Si Phraya as we make our way to the pier from our hotel. At seventy-nine, he is nimble and quick, and takes us to the river’s edge. Then a young woman, whom we stopped and asked for directions to the taxi-boat stop, insists that we wait with her for a golf cart that will take us there together. Bangkok, for all its size and traffic, is so clean and orderly compared to Phnom Penh. 

I keep thinking about work. People are dealing with a lot at the Daily. They’re worried they’re about to lose their jobs, and how they’ll find new ones. They’re worried about how long their savings, if they have any, will last. The foreigners are defiant. Not all of them have safety nets, either. I’ve been trying to get my staff ready, ready for their next jobs. 

From the beginning I knew this was going to be a challenging job. My predecessor Colin Meyn was a fearless leader and left big shoes to fill. I took over during a difficult time and I knew something was wrong when in May 2016 I was ambushed at an event to mark Press Freedom Day. During question time, the last question went to a former employee of the Daily, Saing Soenthrith. Soenthrith told the audience, which included Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, that the paper had abandoned him when he fell ill. If not for the donations he received — one from the prime minister, worth $20,000, and another, $5,000, from Kanharith himself — he didn’t know where he’d be.

Then, several days later, during the ASEAN World Economic Forum in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen used an important news conference to rail against Radio Free Asia and the Daily, saying the paper, “opposes me all the time” and warning that Khmer reporters at these vital media institutions should not become “servants of the foreigners”.

The weekend is too short. 

Day 4

The staff are losing their mojo. There is tension and anger and resignation, sometimes all three in the same minute. It’s hard to get started on any new investigative projects with the threat of closure hanging over our heads. And no one is talking to us. The political analysts, even our regulars, have gone quiet. People aren’t answering the phone or emails. They are afraid of being associated with the paper. It’s becoming more difficult to function. It’s like we’re on life support. Will Hun Sen pull the plug, or will the publisher?

Douglas Steele, the paper’s general manager and husband of the publisher, Debbie Krisher-Steele, is speaking to the staff. The prognosis is grim. There are threats from every angle and the money is drying up. People are upset, angry, bitter and terribly sad. I can’t blame them. They equate closing the paper with quitting, or, as one staffer described it, “a forfeit”.

Meanwhile, we still have a paper to put out.

Tomorrow’s top stories include a news analysis on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), how they’ve gone quiet as threats to the media roil around them. They’re fighting for survival, too. And a story on another case of a Facebook user; the latest in a series of prosecutions against the country’s netizens in recent months. Everything is pointing to a lowered tolerance for any criticism of Hun Sen.

Day 5

It’s the middle of the night and I’ve just finished recording a segment for Al Jazeera’s The Stream with CNRP Vice-President Mu Sochua, political analyst Ou Virak and Interior Ministry official and head of the government-aligned journalism federation Huy Vannak. By the end, everyone is tired and shouting.

The tax department delivers another letter, another escalation. It accuses the Daily of tax evasion and of having, “collected and exploited VAT of hundred thousand dollars from clients”, while not remitting those sums to the government, a “criminal offence” under the law. 

These are false allegations, disprovable through a review of the books, which include advertising over the years by government ministries, including the Finance Ministry, for which no VAT was collected. When Debbie took over the company from her father Bernard Krisher in April, she said it started collecting and paying all taxes, but under her father, the Daily was a “project” that was neither a business nor an NGO. The letter also reaffirms 4 September as the final date for contesting the assessment. After that, “there will be a strict measure for collecting the tax”.

At nearly the same time, a “breaking news” post on Fresh News says the tax department has issued an “urgent clarification”, saying the newspaper has “not even paid even one riel”.

All the news is dire. The government has us in a stranglehold, politically, legally and financially. At this point, there’s no money. The owners had to borrow to make the August payroll. Ads have dropped off. The company’s bank accounts face being frozen. 

Day 6

Hurricane Harvey coverage means the Daily is bumped from its slot on National Public Radio, the US public broadcasting station, but we still get a run. 

There are too many competing demands for access to the newsroom and last-minute meetings to discuss the Daily’s future. 

We just spoke to the translation staff and gave them an update on the situation and the reality of imminent closure. They said they were sorry. I think that meant a lot to Douglas, because no one else is acknowledging the family’s loss. 

Day 7

Douglas returns from a last-ditch meeting and the news isn’t good. He was told by an intermediary that one of Cambodia’s okhnas, or tycoons, was behind this attack on the Daily and he might call it off if we offer an abject apology and promise never to write about him again. This can’t be real.

I just walked through the newsroom informing everyone, in singles and pairs and small groups, that the publishers will work through the weekend to try to the save the paper, but if unsuccessful, we will come in on Sunday to put out the last edition of the Daily.

I’m trying to find the right words. At this point, there are no tears, just a little anger and a group of journalists that is prepared to keep reporting and keep editing until what may be the bitter end. Bitter because it’s ending, because decisions made years ago have threatened the existence of the Daily today. But people are resolute. They have questions and concerns; some are asking for recommendations, but really, we’re still focussed on the future. We have so many leads to follow, so many investigations to continue, so many stories to write on subjects that the Daily has made its reputation with: corruption, graft and human rights abuse.

The foreign staff are mostly concerned about their Cambodian colleagues, who have fewer resources and potentially fewer job prospects. Will their work for the Daily imperil them, make them unemployable? Will they have enough money to carry on while they look for jobs? Can they keep their kids in school? How much severance will be available to them? How can they help?

We finish up what may be the last regular edition of the Daily and leave it to the copy desk to proof and send to the printers. 

Day 8

The US ambassador is offering to send a statement later today about the Daily’s situation. What can he say? 

A former Daily staffer, one of my favourites, Aisha Down, a poet, philosopher and writer who always captures the heart of the people and places she writes about, sends words of encouragement from Colorado: “Whatever happens, the good work you have done cannot be erased.” 

Day 9

Non-stop media activities fill up most of Saturday. Friends, colleagues and supporters meet up at a journalism town hall event organised by the Phnom Penh Press Club at Meta House, a German-government sponsored cultural venue. I provide an update on the Daily’s situation and urge all of them to be courageous. Others ask, “What can be done?” and “What does the future hold?” There are tough questions, followed by tears and beers.

Day 10

Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition CNRP, is arrested just after midnight on a charge of treason. A hundred police officers reportedly descended on his Tuol Kork home and whisked him away to a prison near the Vietnamese border. For Kem Sokha, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s chief political rival, it’s a bitter end to years of threats and legal actions against him and his party. Earlier this year, Kem Sokha had taken leadership of the party in the face of concerted government attacks, including a defamation suit against its former president, Sam Rainsy. But with the higher profile came the higher risk. 

For four months in 2016, Kem Sokha hid at the CNRP’s headquarters in order to evade arrest. All the party’s efforts to play within the government’s rulebook were for naught. The government reached back to a 2013 speech he made in Melbourne, Australia, in which he talked about receiving assistance from the United States and academic experts on effecting change in Cambodia.

Through the night, reporters and editors work feverishly to get the news out, led by editors Michael Dickison and Kate Ginn and reporters in the field. There’s a final news meeting to discuss tomorrow’s edition. We are preparing a big issue to cover the Kem Sokha arrest and to say goodbye to the Daily.

The Daily posts a statement confirming its closure: “The power to tax is the power to destroy. After twenty-four years, the Cambodian government has destroyed the Cambodia Daily.” Words of condolence and support pour in from across the globe.

News editor Chansy Chorn calls out “Board up!” for the last time, with stories for the final edition. It is a terrible moment, but we are too busy to dwell on it. We take photos of the scrum, when everyone crowds around the whiteboards for the last time to see their assignments.

The editing team plans the final paper. We are going up to thirty-two pages. It will lead with the most important story of the year: Kem Sokha’s arrest. For the front-page headline, Dickison pulls a quote from the story, a comment by Charles Santiago of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group. He describes the situation in Cambodia as a “descent into outright dictatorship”. It’s audacious, but it sums up the night, the past month, the entire year of Hun Sen’s crackdown on dissent.

International media people flood the newsroom — so many it’s tough to keep track, and tough to work while they shoot photos and videos and pose questions. 

12.45 am (Monday, 4 September)

The copy desk presses “send” and we put the final copy of the Daily to bed. I send a last tweet as editor-in-chief of what I truly believe was the finest newspaper in Southeast Asia: “It’s a wrap.”

We drink expensive Scotch. Some people have been up for more than twenty-four hours at this point. It has been a gruelling day, a gruelling month. They are exhausted, sad and proud. 

We turn off the lights and walk out into the night, past the signboard where each morning the latest edition of the Daily is posted for anyone to read. In a few hours, after today’s paper arrives from the printer, it will be posted  as usual. One final time.

This story appears in the latest issue of Mekong Review. Please tap here to subscribe

Jodie DeJonge was the tenth and final editor-in-chief of the Cambodia Daily.
  Next Article

China calling

More from the Mekong Review