|Hannah Hawkins, left, an associate editor, and Ben Sokhean, a reporter, worked on the last regular issue of The Cambodia Daily on Thursday in Phnom Penh. Omar Havana for The New York Times|
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For the reporters and editors of The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, Sunday was the end of an era as they prepared its final edition after 24 years in operation.
It was also a chance to cover one more significant story about the loss of free expression in an increasingly autocratic country.
The Daily was ordered by the government to close its doors by Monday over allegations that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The newspaper will publish its last print edition on Monday morning.
But rather than simply mourn their loss, The Daily’s reporters and editors scrambled through the night to cover the arrest of the opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason. He was taken from his house in handcuffs early Sunday morning, accused of colluding with the United States.
“It’s our livelihood, our mission and our passion to put out the news, but it’s a small part of what’s going on in Cambodia today,” said Jodie DeJonge, The Daily’s editor in chief. “They are trying to shut down all independent voices.”
|The Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha, center, being arrested at his home in Phnom Penh on Sunday. He was accused of treason.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images|
In recent weeks, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered at least 15 radio stations to close or stop broadcasting programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The government also ordered the expulsion of the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy, nonprofit organization tied to the Democratic Party of the United States.
Since its founding in 1993, the widely respected newspaper has been an incubator for a generation of young Cambodian and foreign journalists, and it has served as an independent voice in a country with little tradition of free expression.
Its motto: “All the News Without Fear or Favor.”
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear that The Daily is this close to its last edition,” said Chris Decherd, a former Daily editor in chief who is now editor of Voice of America’s Khmer Service.
Among The Daily’s alumni are journalists working at major outlets around the world, including The Associated Press, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Top Cambodian journalists, including many now employed at international news agencies in the country, got their start at The Daily.
“It was an experience that changed the way I see and live in the world,” said Robin McDowell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The A.P. who arrived as a relatively inexperienced reporter at 27 to help start the paper. “It launched my own career and — over the years — that of many other foreigners. Most importantly, though, it was training ground for a generation of local reporters.”
The crackdown on free expression and foreign influence appears to be part of the government’s preparations for an election next July that it has no intention of losing.
“I feel bad because, after The Daily is closed, we won’t have independent news to read anymore,” said Aun Pheap, 53, a veteran reporter who won an award this year for his reporting on illegal logging.
“After they close down all the independent newspapers and radio stations, no one will be able to print true information for the upcoming election.”
The government contends that The Daily owes a tax bill of $6.3 million dating back a decade.
Mr. Hun Sen recently called the paper the country’s “chief thief” and said that if the newspaper did not want to pay, it should “pack up and go.”
The Daily says it has been operating at a loss since 2008 and that the government’s figure is wildly inflated. It says the tax department came up with the number without reviewing the newspaper’s accounts or conducting an audit. The Daily has not been allowed to appeal.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” the newspaper said in a statement to the news media on Sunday. “And after 24 years one month and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press.”
The newspaper was founded by Bernard Krisher, a onetime foreign correspondent for Newsweek who befriended King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia in the 1990s.
Through his close association with the king, Mr. Krisher also founded the Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope and World Assistance for Cambodia, which has built 560 schools in the country.
The king was a regular reader of the newspaper and told Mr. Krisher that he relied on it to know what was going on around the country.
“This is my C.I.A.,” the king once said, according to Mr. Krisher’s account in a 2008 interview. “It’s the only way I can know what is really happening because no one tells me.”
Operating under the king’s sponsorship, Mr. Krisher never registered the newspaper as a business or nonprofit organization.
But the newspaper’s association with royalty has long since faded. King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 and died in 2012. And Mr. Krisher, 86, who lives in Tokyo, is too ill to come to Cambodia to try to rescue the paper, said Douglas Steele, his son-in-law and The Daily’s general manager.
Mr. Krisher’s daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele, tried to normalize the business this year. Ms. Krisher-Steele purchased The Daily’s assets from her father in April and will return them, the paper said.
The Daily’s editorial staff, 17 Cambodians and 17 foreigners, was caught off-guard by the government’s announcement that the paper must pay the enormous tax bill or shut down.
Ms. DeJonge said: “They put themselves in peril every day to come to this job. I’m not sure they will find themselves employable or that things will be safe for them.”
One reporter, Leng Len, 25, joined The Daily less than two months ago. She wrote about social justice issues.
“I love it so much,” she said. “I see my colleagues, both local and foreign, and we share the same beliefs. We are hungry for stories.”
After word of Kem Sokha’s arrest shortly after midnight, she rushed to the police station to report from there and continued working late into the night.
“The Daily,” she said, “gave me the chance to be fearless.”
After the shutdown, it is unlikely there will be an online version after Monday — at least, none that will be updated.
But Gretchen Peters, a managing editor of The Daily during the mid-1990s, said: “I am heartbroken that it’s closing, but I don’t think Hun Sen has won. I suspect The Daily will be back in a format that causes Hun Sen more problems than its current format.”