PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian tax authorities denied Wednesday there is a political motive for a crackdown on delinquent taxpayers that prominently targets media and civil society organizations critical of the government.
The Department of Taxation said in a statement that the motive for seeking the tax payments is to support the national budget, and it is only an effort to make such organizations comply with the law. Cambodia, like other developing countries, has been casual about tax collection as it promoted economic development.
Those singled out by the tax collectors include a long-established English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, two U.S. government-funded radio stations, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and local human rights groups.
The crackdown came to public notice shortly after Prime Minister Hun Sen at his Aug. 4 Cabinet meeting recommended government agencies investigate alleged unpaid payroll taxes at civil society organizations.
Most Cambodian media, especially TV, is owned by the government or businesspeople with close connections to authorities. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are among the few platforms where government critics can reach a large audience. They are able to lease broadcast time from local radio stations.
Because they pay for the time, rather than receive income in Cambodia, their tax situation has been a matter of confusion.
The Taxation Department said their liability had to do with their having established local offices, regardless of their payments to Cambodian radio stations. It said they needed to register with the department to be licensed.
Rohit Mahajan, a spokesman in Washington for Radio Free Asia, described the situation as "evolving." He said RFA has complied with all requests since the Cambodian government approached them in October 2016.
"There has been contradictory information from different branches of the Cambodian government," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "We assure our audience in Cambodia that these issues, while we work to resolve them, will not prevent RFA from doing its important journalistic work. No matter what, RFA will continue bringing the people of Cambodia the trustworthy news and information they deserve."
The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen in recent years has used the courts to harass its opponents and tried to regulate non-governmental organizations, in what many consider an effort to silence its critics.
"The pattern of targeting independent voices and organizations — be they NGOs or media companies — dedicated to transparency and reliable information is worrisome," wrote Mahajan. "It's also a reality that RFA has faced from the beginning that has only worsened in recent years. This crackdown serves to underscore the dire need for credible journalism and press freedom in Cambodia."
The Cambodia Daily reported that human rights organizations were aware of the tax issue, and were making efforts to meet any obligations.
The Cambodia Daily itself appeared to be facing a possible crisis, as the Ministry of Economy and Finance sent it a letter earlier this month claiming that the newspaper owed the government more than $6 million in back taxes and interest, dating back 10 years.
The newspaper was founded in 1993 by Bernard Krisher, a veteran U.S. journalist, to serve as a model and training ground for the development of journalism in Cambodia, which was seeking to re-establish democracy. He received the blessing of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was restored to the throne as a constitutional monarch, also in 1993.
The Daily quoted Deborah Krisher-Steele, the paper's deputy publisher and Krisher's daughter, as saying that the newpaper was started as a non-profit project, though not an NGO. She said her father in April sold its assets to Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. Ltd., a Cambodian company she established.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Washington.