Two U.S.-funded radio broadcasters joined The Cambodia Daily and NGOs in what appeared to be a broadening and increasingly public Finance Ministry investigation into tax payments by institutions known for tense relationships with the government.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) have not registered with the tax department and do not have proper media licenses, according to a letter signed on Friday by Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth and carried by government-aligned Fresh News the same day. The letter asks Information Minister Khieu Kanharith to look into the latter charge.
But Mr. Kanharith said on Sunday he had yet to receive the document and seemed to dispute its instructions, saying that it was the media outlets that carried RFA and VOA programming who bore responsibility for registering with his ministry.
The letter follows a separate document sent from the Finance Ministry to The Daily a week prior alleging that the paper owed more than $6.3 million in unpaid taxes. That charge was disputed by the paper’s publisher Bernard Krisher, who, in a response dated Wednesday, said his charitable contributions, which he estimated at $39 million, should be factored into the government’s figures.
The Finance Ministry could not be reached for comment on either case. It is unclear if they are related to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request in a Cabinet meeting earlier this month asking officials to examine the tax payments of NGOs.
Mr. Porn Moniroth’s letter to Mr. Kanharith says that, using data provided by the Information Ministry, the Finance Ministry found some television and radio stations complied with tax laws, with the notable exceptions of RFA and VOA.
Both outlets “are collecting information and broadcasting through renting airtime from some local private radio stations to relay without fulfilling the tax registration duty, even though there were invitations and announcements from the department of taxation,” Mr. Porn Moniroth writes. “As the operation of Radio Free Asia and VOA radio are under the authority of registration or the providing of license and management of the Information Ministry, please, His Excellency Minister [Kanharith], be informed and push the two radio broadcasters to provide cooperation. If they don’t, please, His Excellency, take strict action on the two radio stations following the law.”
Mr. Kanharith said on Sunday that he had been traveling and had not received the letter. When asked if RFA and VOA needed to register with the Information Ministry, Mr. Kanharith responded that “the radio station [which] sold them airtime need to,” and did not respond to further questions. Several local stations would be involved in providing airtime.
The U.S.-based spokesmen for RFA and VOA could not be reached for comment. Both RFA and VOA are funded by the U.S. government and regularly take a critical stance on the Cambodian government, sparking allegations by some CPP officials that the outlets are propaganda machines bent on fomenting revolution.
The Daily has also strayed in and out of government crosshairs since its establishment in 1993 by Mr. Krisher, a U.S.-born, Tokyo-based former journalist-turned-philanthropist.
In his response sent to Kong Vibol, head of the Finance Ministry’s tax department, on Wednesday, Mr. Krisher highlighted his contributions through two NGOs, which he said built 561 schools worth an estimated $39 million, as well as the Daily, which he called a “social enterprise” designed to train Cambodian journalists and provide accurate news.
“From the start I never took a salary nor profited from The Cambodia Daily,” he wrote in the letter, which was accompanied by email attachments containing copies of recent checks paid to the Education Ministry each worth tens of thousands of dollars. “What profits there were went to those schools.”
“The Cambodia Daily and I have made enormous contributions to support the national needs of Cambodia,” he wrote. “These should be credited. I refute that I owe the tax department 25,756,015,695 Riel.”
Deborah Krisher-Steele, the paper’s deputy publisher and Mr. Krisher’s daughter, said last week that she purchased some of the Daily’s assets from her father and integrated them into a new business earlier this year.
Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said he knew of no law requiring VOA and RFA to register with any ministry, and questioned the timing of the government’s actions on media.
“Both programs have aired in Cambodia for many years,” he said. “I’m afraid it is time to issue these letters because it is time for the general election next year. They try to impose new pressure.”