If any thoughts remained as to whether the sale of Cambodia publishing company Post Media, publisher of The Phnom Penh Post, was the result of a politically motivated artificial tax bill they were put to rest last Friday (May 18) when the company’s new management team fronted a media conference in Phnom Penh.
Anthony Galliano, group chief executive officer of Cambodian Investment Management (CIM) said he first began talks on behalf of new owner, Malaysian businessman Siva Kumar S Ganapathy, aka Siva Kumar G, with former owner, Australian mining magnate Bill Clough, “one year ago”.
By April 11 of this year, 27 days after AEC News Today revealed that the future of the almost 26-year-old publication was in jeopardy over a US$3.9 million tax assessment, operating losses, and a unfair dismissal lawsuit by former CEO Chris Dawe, the deal was done.
For a further 24 days Post Media’s 160 or so staff worked on diligently performing their assigned roles, neither questioning the company’s future or their job security, until on May 4 during a river cruise hosted by Mr Clough they were told that the company and its labour force had been sold.
Describing some of the articles relating to the sale of The Phnom Penh Post as “sensational”, Mr Galliano stressed that the sale was a willing buyer, willing seller situation, “absolutely 100 per cent”, adding that he had ‘not at any time seen any coercion”.
Telling the media that they needed to pick up on the big picture when doing investigative reporting, Mr Galliano said The Phnom Penh Post was operating under “some very extreme financial stress”, pointing to comments in the May 5 2018 media release by Mr Clough announcing the sale.
In the statement Mr Clough thanked his family and his father in particular “for financially supporting the company, along with myself, during these lean years’.
Tax Bill Size Not Unusual
Claiming to be surprised by the sensational media headlines accompanying the revelation of the size of Post Media’s tax bill, Mr Galliano said “it is not unusual when their is a six year audit [for] some big figures to come up.
“I’ve seen it lots of times”, he added, before reminding those unfamiliar with the recent changes to the Cambodia tax system that until recently many companies failed to comply with good record keeping practices, or operated with a good knowledge of Cambodia tax law.
Speaking cautiously due to a non disclosure agreement between the two parties, Mr Galliano said the seller put more effort into settling the tax dispute with Cambodia’s General Department of Taxation (GDT) after the offer was put on the table than prior.
With no new owner or representative on-site, due in part to the timing of the Malaysia general election, the paper’s editorial staff scraped together what information they could from public sources and their former owners media statement (which misspelled Mr Ganapathy’s name) to report on their own sale leading to what Mr Ganapathay called “a rocky start”.
“Malicious” Sale Story Embarrassed New Owner
Emphasising that Mr Clough had been given specific assurances that the legacy of The Phnom Penh Post would continue, Mr Ganapathy said he found himself “demonised by certain journalists at The Phnom Penh Post as someone who had purchased the newspaper and would be ripping this establishment of the journalistic practices it had represented all this while”.
Describing the story on his purchase of The Phnom Penh Post written by former business editor Brendan O’Byrne and Ananth Baliga, as “far from the truth”, Mr Ganapathy said the article was “a misrepresentation of the facts, and a careless, malicious, and defamatory reporting which caused much embarrassment to both myself and my team”.
Adding that he could not “allow journalists who manufacture news to be part of such a highly esteemed media organisation as The Phnom Penh Post“, he said “remedial action” was taken.
While first claiming that a memo obtained by AEC News Today ordering the dismissal of Kay Kimson, editor of the English-language edition of The Phnom Penh Post, along with Mr O’Byrne and Mr Baliga on May 7 as having been fabricated, he later described the focus on the spelling of his surname and the new ownership structure — the first two items on the list –– as just the order that he came across the errors in the story.
“That was presented as if it was a statement from me. It’s not a statement, It was an email that was intercepted”, he explained.
Nefarious Links Dismissed
Describing The Phnom Penh Post as being in dire need of an injection of fresh capital, expertise, ideas, and innovations, Mr Ganapathy said “had I not purchased The Phnom Penh Post, the newspaper would have to shutdown due to its financial situation and pending conflict with the previous CEO (Chris Dawe)”. It’s an appraisal Mr Galliano agrees with.
Dismissing links between the PR firm he purchased in 2011 and work it claims on its website to have done for Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen as having occurred prior to his purchase, Mr Ganapathy said “I have not had any work from the Cambodia government under my watch. that’s why I stated specifically in my statement la, that I am taken aback by all this implications and insinuations”.
Riling against accusations in a heated exchange with one journalist that The Phnom Penh Post content under his ownership “won’t be up to scratch”, Mr Ganapathy said “of course it’s not going to continue the same way, because its not making money. That’s why I bought it, to turn it around”.
When questioned over the recent mass staff resignations and firings, Mr Ganapathy called the recent Apocalypse at The Phnom Penh Post “unfortunate”, but also “a blessing in disguise providing the opportunity to hire new people and bring in more expertise”.
In relation to the legal action by former CEO Chris Dawe against Post Media for unfair dismissal/ breach of contract, which Mr Clough had particularly chastised the Cambodian government over in his media announcement, Ly Tayseng, a lawyer forming part of the transition team said “we hope to settle with Chris as soon as possible”.
After losing in two lower courts, The Phnom Penh Post under Mr Clough had appealed the matter to the Cambodia Supreme Court.
In what can only be described as an at times robust exchange with some media representatives, the new owner simply responded to one question demanding to know if he had a press pass by producing what appeared to be his own Malaysia government issued media pass.
Print Editions to Remain
Similarly, when asked whether his PR firm had ever carried out ‘covert PR’ in Cambodia and whether he intended to use The Phnom Penh Post to do so, a clearly annoyed Mr Ganapathy simply replied “no we haven’t; we don’t plan to; next question?”
Vowing that the print editions of both versions of The Phnom Penh Post will continue, Mr Ganapathy said he saw a lot of prospect in the digital area.
Admitting that his business commitments in peninsula Malaysia will see him only devoting a fraction of his time to The Phnom Penh Post, Mr Ganapathy said he would not rule out buying additional media organisations throughout Asean “if I can afford it”.
Urban Legend Unsupported by Facts
While urban legend, perpetuated largely by journalists with long term affiliations and sentimental attachments to The Phnom Penh Post might like to paint the sale as a plot by the government to silence an aggressive, independent media, the facts do not support the narrative.
Similarly, hysterical headlines of the new owner being closely aligned with the ruling Cambodia Peoples Party (CPP) or Prime Minister Hun and set to silence The Phnom Penh Post‘s editorial independence and freedoms have nothing to back them up.
The sad reality of the sale of The Phnom Penh Post is that in its previous format it was a sponge soaking up huge amounts of money as a vanity project for an Australian mining magnate who’s internal governance and compliance saw it holding others to higher accounts than which it practised itself internally.
The Phnom Penh Post will continue to provide the English-speaking community in Cambodia with factual reports of events in the kingdom. Only time will tell as to what version of facts they are.
In the meantime, the message to long-term business owners in Cambodia is clear. Tax Chief Kong Vihol and his team of auditors are aggressively pursuing those that think they can fly under the radar, or under declare their earnings.
Once the inspectors are in the door their reach can be pervasive; demanding records dating back up to ten years.
For those who didn’t avail themself of the amnesty in 2017 which permitted the refiling of up to the previous five years of annual tax returns and the making up of any shortfall in payments without penalty whose tax records comprise dusty pieces of paper shoved in a shoebox, perhaps now is a good time to consider registering a new identity, and deregistering the old.
Feature video Leakhena Khat
- The Tax Man Cometh: Claims The Phnom Penh Post is Living on Borrowed Time (video) (AEC News Today)
- Leaked Letter Fails to Support The Phnom Penh Post Tax Claims (AEC News Today)
- ‘It’s not political’: Phnom Penh Post CEO on $3.9m tax bill (Southeast Asia Globe)
- Heated Exchanges as New Phnom Penh Post Boss Meets the Press (HD video) (AEC News Today)