The Cambodia Daily newspaper, which has been hit with a $6 million back tax bill and faces assets seizure and possible closure, yesterday stated that press freedom is under attack and called for an investigation into state officials leaking confidential information.
In a press release titled “Protect Press Freedom, End the Attack on The Cambodia Daily”, the paper’s publisher and chief editor claimed the government’s demand it pay about $6.3 million in back taxes for the past 10 years is “an assault on press freedom thinly disguised as a tax dispute”.
“Today, the Daily is under siege,” said deputy publisher Deborah Krisher-Steele. “The Cambodian government plans to seize our assets, which is a blatant violation of bilateral investment treaties signed by Cambodia to protect foreign investors as well as its WTO obligations. Governments around the world need to act now to help us fight off this unfair effort to close our newspaper.”
On August 4, the General Department of Taxation issued the back tax bill, giving the paper 30 days to settle the bill or face assets seizure and possible closure.
Yesterday’s press release claimed the tax information was then leaked by unknown officials at the department to the government-aligned Fresh News website.
“Unknown persons … have been continuously leaking confidential tax information to the government-aligned Fresh News before the communications to The Daily are even postmarked,” the statement said. “It appears that the GDT may well have violated Article 94 of the Law on Taxation which states the GDT and its officials ‘must keep confidential the information pertaining to the taxpayer that they have received during their official performance of their duty and can provide the information only to the person that this article allows’.
“The GDT must investigate which of its people are leaking documents about The Daily’s case, publicly release information about the investigation, and punish those found to have violated the law and/or department regulations.”
“The Cambodian government has carried out the entire tax examination process without adhering to professional standards, confidentiality, or basic due process,” added Ms Krisher-Steele.
“The continuous leaks of information about our case to pro-government media shows that this is more about driving us out of business than honestly trying to ascertain if any back taxes are owed.”
The government has maintained the case is not politically motivated or targeting independent media, with Prime Minister Hun Sen weighing in and calling the paper a “thief” for not simply paying up and continuing to operate.
Meas Sokdesan, spokesman of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said yesterday the government had been strengthening its implementation of tax laws that in the past went unchecked. It was not only the Daily being billed.
“Our country has laws, and we are now strengthening the rule of law,” Mr Sokdesan said. “Others in the private sector as well are under tax scrutiny.”