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.