Information Minister Khieu Kanharith yesterday denied that the government was trying to shut down critical media outlets, including the Cambodia Daily newspaper, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
Following news that his ministry had this week shut down multiple radio stations renting airtime to the opposition CNRP, VOA and RFA, Mr Kanharith yesterday held a press conference in which he denied the government was targeting critical media outlets.
“I always protected their presence here,” he said of VOA and RFA.
“But they have exaggerated the truth, claiming that the government through the Information Ministry is trying to close their operations.”
Mr Kanharith said it was true some of the radio stations closed rented airtime to VOA and RFA, but noted that other stations that also rented time to the stations had not been shut down.
“The ministry has shut some radio stations because they violated their contract,” Mr Kanharith said. “We have reviewed some other radio stations, which also rent time to VOA and RFA, and they remain open.”
The government has been battling the two radio news broadcasters over claims that they have been operating in the country without proper media licences and without paying taxes.
Mr Kanharith added that his ministry was reviewing applications from VOA and RFA to continue operations in the country with proper media licences.
“I have not rejected them to operate their office here like they have exaggerated,” he said. “I’d like to see if they correct this or not.”
The Cambodia Daily has also been hit with a back tax bill of $6.1 million, with the tax department giving it until September 4 to pay up or risk assets seizures and possible closure.
Mr Kanharith said the paper’s employees should not be holding demonstrations about freedom of the press to avoid the tax bill.
The paper’s staff had previously posted photos on social media holding placards that read: “Save Press Freedom. #SaveTheDaily. Cambodia”.
“There were many foreign newspapers that filed complaints about the Cambodia Daily,” relating to it not paying taxes like they were, Mr Kanharith said. These included Japanese and Chinese-language publications.
“So there were many complaints from foreign newspapers to demand equal treatment for fair competition because all those newspapers paid taxes except the Cambodia Daily,” he added.
“I think reporters at the Cambodia Daily should not demonstrate for freedom of the press because it is not a freedom of the press issue, it is the tax law being implemented.”
Cambodia Daily general manager Douglas Steele responded: “This is an attempt to seize a foreign investor’s assets thinly dressed up as a tax dispute.
“It is a violation of bilateral investment treaties that Cambodia has signed protecting foreign investors and of its obligations under WTO agreements.”