Cambodia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations yesterday released a scathing retort to the UN’s human rights office claim that press freedom is under attack ahead of next year’s national election.
On Friday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia raised concern over the government’s ongoing battles with an independent newspaper and two radio programmes.
The government has in the past few weeks threatened to shut down the Cambodia Daily newspaper over unpaid taxes, kicked the National Democratic Institute out of the country and shut down radio stations renting airtime to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
“We are concerned by the rapid series of ministerial and administrative measures which have resulted in the suspension of radio programmes and licences, threatened an English-language newspaper with closure, and shut down a foreign non-governmental organisation,” OHCHR spokeswoman Liz Throssell said on Friday.
“Ahead of next year’s general election, we call on the government to guarantee full political and civil rights and media freedoms.”
Tuy Ry, Cambodia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, released a statement yesterday urging the human rights office not to patronise the government.
“The Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the UN would like to clarify that Cambodia is not in the phase of childhood and has enough maturity to settle its internal issues without the unnecessary advice of outsiders,” the statement said. “The recent measures are not linked to next year’s election like Ms Liz Throssell…said without evidence.”
“Press freedom does not mean media get to evade paying taxes with impunity,” it added. “Newspapers, non-governmental organisations and radio stations have full rights of freedom and harmony in Cambodia…but they [the institutions targeted] have not paid obligatory taxes or respected the law.”
Ms Throssell said via email yesterday: “I have consulted with colleagues and we stand by our statement and have nothing further to add.”
Rights groups Licadho and CCHR called for an end to the attacks on media yesterday by posting photos of their staff holding placards reading “Save Media Freedom”.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for Licadho, said free press is essential to free elections.
“We want to save the Cambodia Daily newspaper,” he said. “We don’t agree with the way the government has approached the tax issue with the paper.”
The tax department issued a notice to the paper on August 4 that it has 30 days to pay about $6 million in back taxes before it faces assets seizure and possible closure.
Mr Sam Ath said if the government was truly strengthening the rule of law as it claims it would work with an independent paper and allow it to pay the taxes back gradually.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the institutions targeted would not be in hot water if they had not broken the law.
“If those institutions had not committed mistakes, they would not be facing legal actions,” he said.
The General Department of Taxation yesterday reaffirmed its position against the Daily following a meeting it had with the paper’s general manager on August 25.
“The Cambodia Daily has been operating a daily business…and avoiding paying tax for many years,” it said. “The paper has not even paid 100 riel in tax (about $0.02).”
“The General Department of Taxation has reaffirmed that if the newspaper stills disagrees to pay the tax department, it has no choice but to implement the law,” it added.
Deborah Krisher-Steele, the paper’s deputy publisher, issued a statement via email yesterday.
“The Cambodia Daily never could or did collect VAT without having a tax number and every dollar of VAT collected or income tax withheld has been paid,” she said.