The last remaining independent English language newspaper in Cambodia has been sold to a Malaysian PR man, who previously worked for the Cambodian Government and is currently “managing ‘covert operations’ for our clients”, according to his website.
After weeks of rumours, the Australian publisher of the Phnom Penh Post announced the sale to staff while on a sunset boat cruise and later released a statement.
“I am pleased to announce that that [sic] the Company has been sold to Malaysian investor, Sivakumar G. (Siva),” wrote Bill Clough, a mining magnate from Western Australia, who previously explored for petroleum products off Cambodia’s coast.
“Siva is a well respected newspaper man, with a [sic] experienced journalist background, and represents a strong investment group from Malaysia.”
Mr Clough expressed hope that the Phnom Penh Post will continue to operate as a source of independent news, in a media landscape dominated by Cambodia’s authoritarian ruling party.
“But our faith in delivering this enduring legacy has been recognised by the new owners and I have full confidence that they will build from our strengths and add further significant value as we enter in to a new exciting era,” he wrote.
That sentiment was echoed by the buyer.
“We would like to assure all readers and followers of The Phnom Penh Post that as the new owner, we are fully committed to upholding the paper’s 26-year-old legacy and editorial principles/independence without infringing any relevant laws and regulations of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” said an unsigned statement issued on non-letterhead paper.
‘Covert’ PR firm
However, neither statement revealed that Sivakumar Ganapathy is the group managing director of Asia PR, a Sarawak-based firm listing its clients as “Cambodia and Hun Sen’s entry into the Government seat”.
Asia PR said it opened its Phnom Penh office in 2014, but appears to have worked for the Cambodian Government as far back as the 1990s.
“Asia PR was given the privilege to advise an important event that involved three Prime Ministers — Tun Dr Mahathir from Malaysia and Hun Sen & Prince Ranarridth, the co-Premiers of Cambodia,” said an entry on the company’s website.
The website also lists as former clients the Kuwait Government, Caltex, and Talam Corporation, a logging firm included in a 1999 Global Witness report about the ‘Untouchables’ of Cambodia’s timber trade.
Asia PR’s website offers a range of services, including “karaoke” and “clubbing” to increase “media rapport”, and covert techniques such as “propaganda targeting”, “intelligence reporting” and letters to the editor.
The managing director is described as “a journalist by discipline and qualification … with credentials in journalism in the United Kingdom and newspaper economics in Australia”.
“Currently he leads the Asia PR team in managing ‘covert operations’ for our clients,” said a biography on the company site.
“Covert PR is creating an issue relating to our client without involving our client,” the website explained.
The company said it had worked extensively with Abdul Taib Mahmud, the controversial former Chief Minister of Sarawak, the Malaysian island best known for the rapacious logging of its stunning rainforest.
‘Digging for rocks, not running newspapers’
Founder of the Phnom Penh Post, Michael Hayes, holding a 1997 copy of the paper. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)
In a quirk of history, Asia PR led to the Phnom Penh Post getting its name.
In 1992, when founders Michael Hayes and Kathleen O’Keefe started their newspaper with the blessing of then-King Sihanouk, they found their first choice of masthead — Cambodia Times — was already taken.
Asia PR had already registered the name and so the Phnom Penh Post was born, beating Cambodia Times to the newsstands by three days.
In another historical echo, one of Cambodia Times’ early editors was Malaysian T Mohan, who currently owns the pro-government Khmer Times.
“The sale of the Post is not a surprise at all,” Michael Hayes said on Sunday.
“After Bill Clough sacked Ross Dunkley as publisher, it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ they would unload the paper.
“The Clough family business is involved in digging for rocks and looking for oil, not running newspapers. At least Bill Clough kept it going as long as he could.”
Mr Hayes sold the paper to Bill Clough and two other partners in 2008.
Current and former staff at the Post described Mr Clough as a popular boss who spent millions making the fortnightly paper a daily, and modernised operations.
Tax probe and lawsuit threats disappear
Outgoing publisher Bill Clough also announced the resolution of two issues that have dogged the Post in recent times — a tax probe and a labour case brought by an Australian former CEO.
“I am please [sic] to confirm that, last week the Company made a full and final amicable settlement of the widely publicised tax claims, with the General Tax Department (GDT),” Mr Clough wrote.
(L-R) West Australian mining magnate Bill Clough with editor-in-chief Kay Kimsong and the Post’s finance director Heang Tangmeng. (Supplied: Facebook)
A Cambodian tax investigation had previously demanded $5 million, claiming a transfer of $3.3 million as a “capital injection to support the running cost of Post Media” was not properly declared in tax statements, and other issues.
A separate problem that has also been resolved for the outgoing owners is the civil case brought by Australian Chris Dawe, who was fired in 2015 for alleged “gross misconduct”.
Mr Dawe successfully sued the Post for unfair dismissal and was awarded $344,000 (US$264,000) in unpaid wages and other settlements.
It has been reported previously that an email suggested Mr Dawe may have had a “major backer” promise to assist him with his case against the paper — a claim rejected by Mr Dawe.
The Appeal Court’s decision to implement the ruling and seize assets despite a further appeal to the Supreme Court being underway, has now been stopped.
“While the ongoing court case has been extremely disappointing, and a poor reflection on the Kingdom’s courts’ system, we are pleased that the enforcement of a bailiff action against the Company’s assets has been cancelled, until the Supreme Court has heard the appeal case,” Bill Clough said.
The sudden resolution of these two issues has raised concerns the new owners will enjoy the patronage of the Hun Sen Government.
“From the outside looking in, the most troubling thing is the timing of the tax bill’s settlement and the Post’s subsequent sale,” former editor Chad Williams said.
“The odds of them not being connected seem incredibly remote,” Mr Williams told Reuters.
A paper with ‘guts and heart’
The Post’s sale comes at a time of increasing repression in Cambodia, as the country approaches a national election in July.
On Hun Sen’s request, the court dissolved the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and detained its leader Kem Sokha on treason charges.
The American-owned English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to close last year over a $8.2 million tax bill.
Dozens of Khmer-language radio stations were also shut down, leaving Cambodian airwaves almost totally devoid of independent news.
Reporters from across the region have expressed concern about the future of journalism in Cambodia.
“Two English language newspapers, which proved integral to Cambodia’s restructuring over the last 25 years, have disappeared within a very short space of time and that has to be a sad reflection on the current media climate,” said Luke Hunt, Treasurer of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia.
“People forget that the Phnom Penh Post began its operations when Cambodia was a failed state and it published impartially and with guts, stories written by journalists who worked their hearts out and have contributed enormously to the fabric of Cambodian society,” he added.
Disclosure: Liam Cochrane worked at the Phnom Penh Post as a journalist in 2004 and as the managing editor in 2005.