By Matthew Tostevin
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Critics of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have grown used to following upstart news service Fresh News to find out what the government’s next target might be.
From treason accusations against detained opposition leader Kem Sokha to the tax demand against the now-shuttered Cambodia Daily to allegations against the recently expelled U.S. National Democratic Institute, it was on Fresh News first.
Its rise, just as pressure is growing on more critical media, reflects a shift in control of information in the run-up to next year's general election at the same time as a crackdown on Hun Sen's opponents.
"If any news needs to be reported, I may contact the prime minister or the prime minister may contact me," 37-year-old Fresh News chief executive Lim Chea Vutha told Reuters.
Lim rejected accusations it publishes unsubstantiated reports to serve the government's interest and said it was just ambitious to break news the same as any major news agency.
Cambodia has long had one of Southeast Asia’s most open media environments, but journalists with publications critical of the government say work is becoming tougher than during any period of Hun Sen’s more than three-decade rule.
“This means an imbalance of information,” said Pa Nguon Teang, head of the partly EU-funded Voice of Democracy radio station, banned from broadcasting to its estimated 7.7 million listeners last month and now trying to publish via Facebook.
Eighteen other radio stations were ordered off air while channels were also forbidden from rebroadcasting the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
The Cambodia Daily newspaper, whose editor described it as “a burr in Hun Sen's side” since it was started 24 years ago, was forced to close by a crippling $6.3 million tax bill – news of which first appeared on Fresh News.
The three-year-old publication also published the video that formed the basis for arresting opposition leader Kem Sokha for treason charges his lawyers dismiss as nonsense.
"It's not fresh news, it's not even fake news, it's bad news - bad news for the future of Cambodia," said Mu Sochua, a deputy of Kem Sokha in his Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Cambodia is not the only Southeast Asian country where the media is under pressure, with journalists and bloggers in Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam facing everything from verbal threats to arrest to violence.
Hun Sen has said his attitude to media he does not like is no different to that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has branded some liberal U.S. news organizations "fake news" and has refused to take questions from their reporters.
For Hun Sen, a 65-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier, critical media are "like children challenging their father", said Huy Vannak, president of the partly state-funded Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia.
“They only mock his good faith to the nation. That's why he's not tolerant,” he said.
Praised openly by Hun Sen, Fresh News now has more than 100 employees. At the company's ninth-floor offices near a busy Phnom Penh junction, signs tell journalists “the first enemy of success is laziness”.
Facebook is one of the main channels for Fresh News to publish and has also been embraced by Hun Sen since the opposition almost won the 2013 election, partly with the help of their social media strategy.
While declining to give company financial details, Lim said he received no money from the government. A government spokesman said there was no funding for Fresh News or anyone publishing on social media beyond official accounts.
Lim said he was supported only by advertising. Flipping through his mobile phone, he showed ads for everything from Range Rover to Coca-Cola to local businesses thriving in an economy growing at around 7 percent a year.
But business and government are entwined in Cambodia and the leadership and its family members control many of Cambodia's biggest enterprises - including media businesses.
Hun Sen's oldest daughter, Hun Mana, chairs Kampuchea Thmey Daily and Bayon TV and Radio among at least a dozen other firms. Senate president and the deputy leader of the ruling Cambodia People's Party, Say Chhum, owns Rasmei Kampuchea, Cambodia's most popular newspaper.
According to a 2015 study, media organizations with politically affiliated owners accounted for 41 percent of print readership and 63 percent of television viewership. Of those owners, eight out of 10 were close to the ruling party.
Businesses won't give advertising to media seen as pro-opposition because it won’t help them, said Huy Vannak.
"The government doesn’t need to sponsor you when your content is positive. Business will come to you," he said.
Despite international awards for its reporting, the Cambodia Daily was not a big commercial success. By the end, it said it was barely breaking even and had no hope of paying a tax bill it disputed before the Sept. 4 deadline set by government.
The paper appeared to get limited sympathy from Lim.
“It’s the right of the government to shut it down,” he said. “As we reported, it’s a legal matter.”
(Editing by Nick Macfie)