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French-language daily to close, editor fired after publishing excerpts of report on illegal logging

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is outraged at the 12 June 2007 decision by the owners of the French-language daily "Cambodge Soir" to close the newspaper, just two days after unfairly dismissing its news editor for publishing extracts from a long report on illegal logging that was critical of the government.

The press freedom organisation voiced its solidarity with the newspaper's 30 employees - 14 of them journalists - who could all lose their jobs, and called on Abdou Diouf, the secretary-general of the International Organisation of Francophone Countries (OIF), to intercede.

"The OIF has for years been supporting 'Cambodge Soir', which has set the benchmark for the French-language media in Asia and had produced many talented French and Cambodian journalists," Reporters Without Borders said. "Although your organisation had just released new funds to support this newspaper, its management has decided to terminate this 12-year-old venture on the grounds of financial difficulties. We ask you to help prevent the disappearance of this exemplary French-language daily."

"Cambodge Soir"'s owners, among them minority shareholder Philippe Monin, on 12 June told their staff that the liquidation of the newspaper and the company that publishes it, Société des Editions du Mékong, had already begun. The announcement came just one day after the newspaper's journalists began a strike in protest against the summary dismissal of news editor Soren Seelow for publishing a detailed story based on a report by the environmental group Global Witness implicating associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen in illegal logging (see IFEX alert of 6 June 2007).

The story did not please Monin and the newspaper's managing editor, who summoned Seelow on 10 June and told him he was fired.

Monin, who is also employed by the French Development Agency (AFD) to act as an adviser for the Cambodian agriculture ministry, told Seelow that his article would upset the authorities and put him in a difficult position.

The Cambodian government has banned publication of the report in full or in part, while the prime minister's brother, Hun Neng, reportedly said that if anyone from Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would "beat them on the head until it broke."

"Cambodge Soir"'s striking employees meanwhile issued a statement on 13 June condemning Seelow's summary dismissal, the meddling in its editorial policies and the fact that the newspaper seems to have no future.

Reporters Without Borders contacted Monin, who has been a shareholder since the newspaper was launched in 1995, but he refused to make any comment.

A Cambodia-based journalist who spoke to Reporters Without Borders on condition of anonymity claimed that the new managing editor hired by "Cambodge Soir"'s board in September 2006 had been given the job of "sabotaging" the newspaper.

With support from the French embassy, the staff recently launched several new projects including a website (which is no longer online) and special sections to cover the trial of Khmer Rouge members. But the managing editor allegedly did several things to undermine these initiatives, including abruptly suspending an advertising sales contract in December.

"Cambodge Soir" had a reputation for editorial independence compared with its French-language counterparts in Laos and Vietnam. Despite its limited circulation (about 2,000 copies) and recurring financial difficulties, it had a significant impact on the Cambodian media landscape and its reports were often quoted in the Khmer-language press.

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