An Australian who was awarded $344,000 for wrongful dismissal told the Cambodian newspaper he worked for that he had a “major backer” who would “help me win” the case, according to an email obtained by the ABC.
- Chris Dawe fired in 2015 for “gross misconduct” but successfully sued the paper
- Cambodia’s media under attack by Hun Sen’s Government
- Phnom Penh Post recently hit with $5 million tax bill
Chris Dawe successfully sued the Phnom Penh Post — the last remaining independent English-language newspaper in Cambodia.
However, the case has been plagued by questions about the judicial process, based partly on an email the ABC can now reveal.
In 2012, Dawe was employed as chief executive officer at the Phnom Penh Post, which is published by West Australian mining magnate Bill Clough.
Dawe was fired in 2015 for “gross misconduct” — including the alleged forgery of his contract — but successfully sued the paper for wrongful dismissal in a Cambodian court.
The ruling was upheld at the Court of Appeal.
Despite a further appeal being lodged, the Appeal Court judge ordered a “temporary implementation” of the ruling — payment even though the case was ongoing.
Court officials entered the Post’s headquarters and printing facility on April 6 to estimate assets they would potentially seize if the damages were not paid in 20 days.
That deadline was April 24 and staff were bracing for a possible raid.
A reprieve came when the Supreme Court announced it would delay the enforcement of the payment until it could judge the merits of the ongoing case, according to two sources at the Post.
‘Major backer … he is big’
The ABC has obtained an email that appears to be from Dawe, suggesting dealings with the courts, to be arranged by a rival newspaper, the pro-government Khmer Times.
The email, dated July 9, apparently from Dawe to the Post’s finance director, Heang Tangmeng, asks for a personal loan of $US10,000 ($13,300) to survive until the case is settled, a request which was denied.
“I have been offered the CEO role at the Khmer times [sic] by both [owner] Mohan and more importantly by his major backer who I cannot name but believe me he is big,” the email said.
“This person has also indicated that he will help me win (enough said),” the email said.
“I have been told that the judge has already expressed an opinion that I am legally entitled to be awarded my total claim, he did however further state that in order to make it look like he was being fair that he would make some small concession by reducing my claim by an amount of approximately 10 per cent which in dollar terms would equal about $30,000.”
The email also states Dawe gave lawyers extra money to “make certain”, although it doesn’t explain what that money was intended to be used for.
“The Post is also liable to pay my legal expenses which to date are approximate [sic] $40K. A further [USD]$20K was “given” to make certain ! [sic] the Cambodian way of doing business,” Dawe wrote.
(L-R) Owner of the Khmer Times T. Mohan, standing with then-editor-in-chief Alan Parkhouse and Hun Many, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen. (Supplied: Facebook)
The ABC has a copy of the full email, which also includes information about Dawe’s salary, legal strategy and personal life.
However, Dawe denies writing the email and there is no evidence that any bribery occurred.
“The purported email is entirely false along with many other statements and claims made by Post Media Co Ltd,” Dawe wrote in an email to the ABC on April 24.
“I can only assume that all of these ridiculous, completely untrue, and inaccurate comments have been made with the explicit intention of causing delay and evidently with the purpose of deferring media attention away from the company’s real taxation problems,” he wrote.
Dawe told the ABC he was in Bangkok receiving treatment for cancer.
Given the allegations of possible judicial interference, lawyers for the Phnom Penh Post asked the Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge to recuse herself from the case — and reportedly submitted Mr Dawe’s email as evidence — but she declined.
Press freedom under attack
The Phnom Penh Post’s troubles have wider implications for Cambodia and free speech.
Cambodia’s media is under attack by a hostile Government determined to win an election at all costs.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled the kingdom for 33 years and has vowed to unleash civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) loses a July 29 ballot.
On Hun Sen’s request, the court dissolved the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and jailed its leader Kem Sokha on treason charges, with no trial date set.
Last year, the former Khmer Rouge commander — who lost an eye on the battlefield — turned his focus to the media.
The final issue of The Cambodia Daily declared the country had descended ‘into outright dictatorship’. (Reuters: Pring Samrang)
The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut in September 2017 after it was hit with an $8.2 million tax bill.
The closure was widely mourned as a blow to free speech, with the front page of The Cambodia Daily’s final edition headlined: ‘Descent into outright dictatorship’.
Perhaps more important for millions of rural Cambodians was the banning of 32 radio frequencies in 20 provinces that broadcast independent journalism, such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and Voice of Democracy.
Cambodia’s airwaves were depopulated overnight, leaving listeners with music, sport and political propaganda.
Tax bill looms
(L-R) West Australian mining magnate and current owner of the Phnom Penh Post, Bill Clough, with editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong and the Post’s finance director Heang Tangmeng. (Supplied: Facebook)
The two remaining English language newspapers provide a stark choice for readers in Cambodia.
The Khmer Times is strongly pro-government in its reporting and editorials.
Its funding has been linked to the Naga casino in Phnom Penh and to Hun Manith, director of the Defence Ministry’s military intelligence unit and son of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The paper is owned by Malaysian citizen Mohan Tirvgmanasam Banddam — who calls himself T.Mohan.
In 2000, he was arrested on allegations of attempting to extort the vice-president of Naga casino, but was released after three days, and maintains his innocence.
In 2015, T.Mohan was caught plagiarising his editorials in the Khmer Times.
The Phnom Penh Post was founded by Americans Michael Hayes and Kathleen O’Keefe in 1992.
At first a fortnightly, then a daily, the Post is considered Cambodia’s newspaper of record, and like the Daily, nurtured generations of Cambodian and foreign reporters.
Founder of the Phnom Penh Post, Michael Hayes, holding a 1997 copy of the paper. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)
Mr Hayes sold the paper to Bill Clough and two other partners in 2007.
In recent months, the Phnom Penh Post has also been hit with a $5 million tax bill, according to a leaked letter from the Cambodian tax department.
A counter offer from the Post of $A65,000 was rejected by the tax office.
The director-general of the tax office, Kong Vibol, argued a transfer $3.3 million as a “capital injection to support the running cost of Post Media” was not properly declared in tax statements.
Mr Clough did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
In March, Post CEO Marcus Holmes said: “We fully expect we are going to explain this, [the tax department] is going to accept that and everyone is going to be happy.”
Last month, Mr Clough told senior staff he was in negotiations to sell the Phnom Penh Post to a Malaysian logistics company with no known experience in media.
Disclosure: Liam Cochrane worked at the Phnom Penh Post as a journalist in 2004 and as the managing editor in 2005.