Observers worry that this month’s closure of an independent Cambodian newspaper in the face of an astronomical tax demand is the latest incident illustrating a global trend in which governments abuse tax laws to harass independent news media outlets and silence critical reporting.
The English-language Cambodia Daily published its last print edition on Sept. 3 after Cambodia’s government ordered it closed unless it failed to pay €5.3 million in disputed tax debts.
The Daily, which reported for more than 20 years, denies the government’s claim and it has decried the fact that it was not allowed to appeal the tax bill.
The paper printed only a few thousand copies per day, but it had a reputation for breaking news about sensitive topics such as corruption, waste, environmental issues and land rights.
The government claims that the Daily owes a tax bill of €5.3 million dating back a decade, but the paper denies that, claiming that it has operated at a loss since 2008. The paper accuses the government of inflating the amount owed and failing to look at the paper’s accounts or audit its books before levying the bill.
The Daily was just one of a number of media organisations that Cambodia’s government has targeted amid a broader crackdown on independent media.
Nineteen radio stations were shut down in the last month, including the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The government has been targeting not only independent media, but also opposition politicians and rights activists as part of a widening crackdown seen as a move to bolster Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of an election next year.
In August, the government expelled the U.S.-funded, pro-democracy National Democratic Institute (NDI), also for alleged failure to pay taxes,
Cambodia Daily Editor-in-Chief Jodie DeJonge said the efforts were part of a broad crackdown.
“The closure of the Daily combined with the closure of the 19 radio stations and the NDI, the expulsion of foreign workers and the threat against the civil society was an attempt to silence independent voices,” DeJonge told the International Press Institute (IPI).
She added that harassment, intimidation and surveillance of human rights defenders in Cambodia have intensified. Viewed along with the arrest of the main opposition leader, who is accused of treason, the developments point towards an attempt by the government to maintain power.
Cambodia’s government’s use of tax bills to pressure critics appears to be in line with a pattern around the globe. Over the last year, two similar tax cases against media outlets have played out in the neighbouring southern African countries of Zambia and Malawi.
In June 2016, Zambia’s government seized the offices and printing press of The Post newspaper, demanding approximately €4.8 million in allegedly unpaid taxes. However, the Post disputed the amount owed and accused authorities of trying to silence it ahead of an August 2016 general election.
IPI and the African Media Initiative (AMI) sharply criticised the Zambian government’s move in statements and a report following a joint press freedom mission to the country in July 2016. However, the paper folded in November 2016 after a court appointed a trustee to liquidate it amid former employees’ complaints for back pay – complaints The Post argues were brought with government encouragement.
Three months later, Malawi’s government took a similar tack when its revenue authority seized the Blantyre offices of the opposition Times Group – which publishes the Daily Times and Malawi News, and owns Times Radio and Times TV – and demanded approximately €783,000 in allegedly unpaid taxes.
The seizure of the Times Group’s office came on Jan. 13, less than a week after Malawi’s Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) sought an injunction preventing the media outlet from publishing stories on so-called ”maize gate” scandal, over allegations of corruption in Malawi’s maize imports from Zambia.
The Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa condemned the seizure, arguing that it was intended to deny Malawians access to relevant information and was likely to tarnish the image of the administration of President Peter Mutharika.
IPI recently spoke to Joan Chirwa, the former managing editor of The Post in Zambia, about similarities between the closure of her former paper and the Cambodia Daily. Chirwa said that she was not surprised by the Daily’s closure and expressed a belief that both cases were the manifestations of a troubling trend.
“The [Cambodian] government is afraid that the people in the Cambodia Daily are going to expose a lot of wrong things for the upcoming elections,” she commented.
Expressing concern that government aggressiveness towards media often precedes elections, Chirwa emphasised that journalists and rights groups should unite to protect independent journalism around the world.
“What we will do is to protect what we believe in, to protect the independence of the media, not only for our own sake but also for the people,” she explained.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis, noting that a number of other governments have misused tax laws similarly in recent years, called on governments around the world to implement safeguards ensuring that tax powers are not politicised or used to target and harass independent media.
“This type of abuse severely impacts media freedom in a country and, if allowed to stand, invites further violations,” he said. “Allowing journalists to report freely and without fear that they will be targeted is not only required under international human rights standards, it’s absolutely vital to provide an environment where independent voices can be heard and citizens can hold government accountable.”