Prime Minister Hun Sen weighed in on Tuesday on a $6.3 million tax bill levied against The Cambodia Daily, an amount the newspaper disputes, branding the Daily a “thief” and ordering it to pay the bill or “pack up and go.”
The statement came as the newspaper’s publisher, Bernard Krisher, submitted a letter asking the prime minister to meet with the Daily’s deputy publisher, his daughter Deborah Krisher-Steele, saying that Mr. Hun Sen was the only one who could prevent the newspaper’s shutdown.
The Daily was hit on August 5 with the bill alleging unpaid taxes stretching from 2007 to this year by the Finance Ministry’s general tax department and given 30 days to pay up or face seizure of its assets, among other remedies. The department has rejected claims by Ms. Krisher-Steele, who said she purchased some of the Daily’s assets from her father and has complied with tax laws since, as well as her father, who maintained that $39 million worth of charitable contributions should be factored in any unpaid taxes as deductions.
Speaking at a forestry protection forum at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, the prime minister denied Ms. Krisher-Steele’s claims that the dispute was politically motivated.
“The thief has not paid tax to the government for 10 years. Since its launch, it has not paid tax,” he said.
“If you want to stay longer, pay tax to the government,” he said. “If [you] don’t pay tax to the government, pack up and go. Be clear that it is not a political motive.”
Around the same time Mr. Hun Sen spoke, Daily staff delivered the 86-year-old Mr. Krisher’s letter to the prime minister’s Cabinet requesting the leader’s intervention.
Noting a past news conference in Tokyo, when Mr. Hun Sen held a copy of the Daily aloft as an example of Cambodia’s free press, Mr. Krisher, a philanthropist and retired journalist, said he was worried the era of independent media was ending.
Claiming the August 5 letter was the “first time I was told of any debts,” Mr. Krisher said that the process had involved “no audit, no documentation, no due process” and contended that the department’s actions were meant to close the paper.
“Only you, Your Excellency, can stop the tax department to take these measures,” he wrote. “I implore you to intervene and stop the shut down of The Cambodia Daily.”
Ms. Krisher-Steele could fly in from Tokyo, where both live, with 24-hour notice to meet with Mr. Hun Sen, Mr. Krisher wrote.
Ms. Krisher-Steele on Tuesday called for the government to fully consider the paper’s appeals by following a formal audit, which she said was the “legal right of every taxpayer in Cambodia.”
“If at the end of the process, it is determined that we owe taxes, then we will pay it,” she wrote in an email.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the request for intervention was inappropriate.
“It’s not involved with the prime minister,” he said. “A number of private establishments have problems with the tax. They go to the tax department. They don’t go to the prime minister.”
Douglas Steele, the Daily’s general manager, said the paper was drafting a request to meet with Kong Vibol, the head of the tax department, to discuss the issue.
But in an interview with government-aligned Fresh News on Monday night, Mr. Vibol made his third public warning to the Daily to “please come to pay tax to the state.”
The Law on Taxation forbids officials from disclosing taxpayer information publicly, and Mr. Vibol has not spoken to media aside from Fresh News since the bill was leaked there on August 5.
In a statement released on Tuesday evening, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) said that “due process had not been followed” in the case, noting the leak and the lack of audit or consideration of appeals.
“The OPCC also asks the government of Cambodia to proceed with transparency, fairness and due process,” the letter says.
Lee Morgenbesser, author of “Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia,” said he would “be surprised if Hun Sen budged” on a tax-focused crackdown centered on civil society and independent media.
“The same strategy has been used by Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary and a seemingly increasing number of other dictators,” he wrote in an email. “Since this form of repression is more subtle, international actors are less likely to raise questions about this latest crackdown.”
“I fear the Daily’s days are numbered,” he added.
In an unrelated case, two Cambodia Daily reporters were questioned by Ratanakkiri Provincial Court prosecutors on Tuesday over a complaint from three men who accused them of asking inflammatory questions on their voting history for a story before the June commune elections.
Their lawyer, Sek Sophorn, said the prosecutor had yet to make a decision on whether to pursue further investigation.
“I explained the job of a journalist,” Mr. Sophorn said. “That it’s his job to question. That no one has to answer.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun and Ben Sokhean)