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Cambodian men read the English-laguage newspaper Cambodia Daily in front of its office in Phnom Penh on Sept. 4, 2017.

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

On a late November afternoon, Douglas Steele waited as the teller processed his request to empty the last bit of cash in an account belonging to the Cambodia Daily.

The newspaper published its final edition in September after the government issued it a $6.3-million (U.S.) tax bill, in the midst of a broad effort to curb critical voices that has muted some of the country's independent press – while at the same time opening the door to Chinese media interests.

Mr. Steele and his wife, Deborah Krisher-Steele, published the paper, an independent voice founded in 1993 that has served as a journalism training grounds in Cambodia.

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The bank account was one of its final vestiges.

As Mr. Steele pocketed the thin sheaf of bills, the Daily's office had already been scrubbed of the newspaper's presence.

"They're zeroing out the media they don't like. And we got caught up in that," Mr. Steele said.

Since around the time of its first democratic elections in 1993, Cambodia has become home to one of the most open media environments in Southeast Asia. Today, hundreds of different outlets compete for audiences. The ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, boasts that the country continues to allow expression of a wide variety of views.

But critical voices have been receding in a co-ordinated CPP effort to repulse Western influence and weaken political adversaries.

A court dissolved the Cambodian National Rescue Party, the country's main opposition, in November. Reporters have been jailed, human-rights organizations closed down and foreign-funded news services – including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy – pulled from the airwaves. Licences have been revoked for more than 15 radio stations, including those that carried the now shuttered news services; in mid-December, the Ministry of Information said it was eliminating 275 publications it called "inactive."

At the same time, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought support from China, which has become a critical source of investment capital and is now also beginning to establish a presence in Cambodia's media industry as well.

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Earlier this year, the two countries agreed to a "memorandum of understanding on information co-operation" that will see Cambodians offered scholarships to study journalism in China, which is ranked fifth from the bottom in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.

In September, Cambodia's Interior Ministry also partnered with Chinese firm NICE Culture Investment Group to launch a new television station, NICE TV, in Cambodia.

The station's programming includes local content alongside dramas and films from South Korea, Thailand and China.

But "we often purposely select more Chinese culture-related programs when sorting through the imported TV resources. We want people to watch more good Chinese documentaries, dramas and programs with historical themes," said Fan Yuhua, assistant to the chief executive officer at NICE, which is based in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

The company is already planning to expand its Cambodia service. It has received a radio licence, plans to construct billboards and has built its own fibre-optic system in the country. It's all part of One Belt One Road, a national initiative led by President Xi Jinping to spread Chinese influence and corporate capital. NICE can help improve Cambodian media by importing Chinese expertise in technology and live online streaming, Ms. Fan said.

But, Ms. Fan said, "as a member of the Belt and Road News Alliance, we will strive to tell Chinese stories and promote Chinese culture."

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Cambodian audiences are already reading Chinese stories about the rest of the world, through a local news site that has risen to prominence for its ability to break news – some of it favourable to the Hun Sen government.

Fresh News was launched in 2014 with one central idea: to get news out fast. It now boasts nearly 2.5-million likes on Facebook and a series of scoops that have included exclusive interviews with Mr. Hun Sen and the publication of leaked documents, some of which have cast CPP opponents in a bad light.

Activists deride Fresh News as a propaganda outlet infecting the country's discourse.

"They are a government mouthpiece, a tool of the government to provoke problems in Cambodia by providing fake news or frightening people – as a way to threaten activists or the opposition," said Pa Nguon Teang, founder and executive director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. Branded a "foreign agent" for accepting international funding, he runs Voice of Democracy in the country, which has been reduced to a Facebook service after it was taken off the air.

Fresh News co-founder Lim Chea Vutha insists he operates independently, offering as proof a prepared list of articles he has published on government corruption, illegal logging and problems at the country's borders.

"We broadcast everything," Mr. Lim said, and then shows off the company's ad-laden website as proof that it pays the bills the way any commercial media would. People turn to Fresh News, he said, because its 24-hour operation churns out reports at a speed no one else can match.

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But Fresh News has also succeeded in part by being a studious stenographer of utterances by high-ranking government officials. The tone of its coverage can resemble that of state media in countries such as China.

In fact, Fresh News relies on Xinhua, China's central state-run news agency, for coverage of foreign affairs, which it publishes in Khmer and English. Mr. Lim is also planning a Chinese edition that would cater to the growing number of wealthy Chinese businessmen in Cambodia.

But it's not a question, he said, of spurning the West. "We want the economy to grow, we want investment from China so it can generate many jobs for Cambodia."

And Cambodia's government laughs at the suggestion that it is constricting the space for media expression.

Media forced to close were the outlets that failed to pay taxes, said Sok Ey San, spokesman for the CPP. "We welcome every media, critical or supportive, but they have to follow the rule of law," he said.

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, also downplayed the demise of some outlets, likening it to the loss of a few flowers in a bouquet that remains beautiful. Cambodia "remains one of the outstanding places for free press in the region," he said.

He also played down China's influence. Countries such as Japan, Sweden and the United States have long supported local media, as has the United Nations. He sees China as little different.

The Cambodian government is "willing to take any donations from any country," he said.

Human-rights advocates, though, see the country's changing media landscape as reflective of larger worries about Cambodia. "I'm really concerned about a society that can't get independent news," said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy for Licadho, the Cambodian League for the Promotion of and Defense of Human Rights.

Ms. Krisher-Steele is more blunt: "All these sort of things that are happening now, it's just sort of a flashback to things that happened during the Khmer Rouge time," she said.

"They're silencing [critics] through real actions and also through creating a feeling of fear."

With reports from Van Roeun and Alexandra Li

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