Facing imminent threats of closure and legal action over a disputed $6.3 million tax bill, The Cambodia Daily will cease operations as of today, bringing to a close more than 24 years of independent journalism.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part Cambodia’s free press,” said the Daily’s owner Deborah Krisher- Steele.
The announcement came exactly one month after a docu- ment from the General Depart- ment of Taxation was leaked online, giving the Daily until today to pay the tax bill, and
less than two weeks after Prime Minister Hun Sen described the publishers as “thieves” and told them to either pay the tax or “pack up and go.”
The Daily has insisted that the tax dispute is politically motivated, calling for a proper audit and good faith negotia- tions. Meetings between the newspaper’s management and tax officials, however, have
failed to bridge the impasse. “In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations,” Ms. Krisher-Steele said. “Instead, the Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and pub- lic vilification by the head of government before an audit, much less a legal proceeding.” The government has ramped up its rhetoric against the Daily in response to claims of political motivation from the publishers and a social media campaign using the hashtag #savethedaily.
A week after the August 22 speech by Mr. Hun Sen, a fre- quent reader of the Daily, the tax department issued a state- ment accusing the newspaper’s management of illicitly pocketing value added tax. “The Cambodia Daily newspaper… has committed tax evasion for years by not paying even one riel in tax,” it said.
In yesterday’s statement, the Daily denied the allegations, describing the claims as “unfounded and defamatory.” It said the newspaper’s founder and publisher, Bernie Krisher, who resides in Tokyo, would seek dissolution of the company that owns the Daily.
“Mr. Krisher flatly asserts that the way he operated The Cambodia Daily was lawful and invites the Government of Cambodia to prosecute him if it believes otherwise.
If charged, Mr. Krisher will return to Cambodia,” the newspaper said in a statement.
In remarks published by the government-aligned Fresh News website, tax department director-general Kong Vibol said the Daily would still be liable for the taxes despite its closure.
“Those in charge of this newspaper are responsible for the state’s tax and cannot escape and cannot leave Cambodia because we are implementing Cambodia’s tax law,” Mr. Vibol was reported as saying. “If there is no money to pay the tax…seizure of this paper’s property must be made according to Cambodia’s tax law.”
Contacted yesterday, Mr. Vibol hung up on a reporter. Both Mr. Krisher and his daugh- ter, Ms. Krisher-Steele, have remained in Tokyo over the past month. The newspaper’s representative in Phnom Penh has been Douglas Steele, Ms. Krisher-Steele’s husband and
the Daily’s general manager, who declined further comment yesterday.
U.S. Ambassador William Heidt, who has met with tax officials in an attempt to resolve the dispute with the Daily, was among many readers mourning
the Daily’s closure yesterday. “Many fine American and Cambodian journalists got their start at the Daily,” he said in an email. “The Daily’s closure removes an important, independent, and internationally known voice from Cambodia’s media scene.”