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Opinion As Trump turns his back on journalists, a small but mighty Asian newspaper suffers

Guy Nicholson is former managing editor of The Cambodia Daily and former deputy opinion editor of The Globe and Mail

"After 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily."

That was the first sentence I read on my news feed Sunday morning. This is bad news for journalists everywhere, and horrible news for my former colleagues at the English-language newspaper in Phnom Penh. In a murky corner of Southeast Asia, the Daily was a tiny but important light, the very opposite of fake news. And yet that politically charged term, so beloved and abused recently by populist leaders in the West, played a key role in what looks to be the paper's demise.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge cadre who has ruled Cambodia for 32 years, has long had it out for the Daily, the free press and democracy in general. After years of threats and manoeuvring, his government will be celebrating Monday, having apparently shuttered yet another critical voice with an unpayable surprise tax bill less than a year before a critical national election. The move was telegraphed and justified citing anti-media rhetoric straight from the mouth of U.S. President Donald Trump.

In 1996, I was months out of journalism school, still seeking my career path, when I was hired at the Daily. The American-owned paper, founded as a non-governmental organization with a mission to train Khmer-speaking journalists as Cambodia transitioned from failed state to democracy, offered me a job the same week I was offered a grad-school spot in Canada. Rarely are life's choices so stark, but I picked Cambodia and the Daily and never regretted it.

The job was to train Cambodians and put out the paper. But the marching orders were exactly backward, as every expat staffer quickly discovered.

For one, the little NGO paper was actually an all-consuming passion project; the pages demanded to be put first. The Daily paid poorly and guaranteed burnout, churning through visiting Western staff, for whom the main reward was a fast-track lesson in international journalism. While other members of my graduating class were covering town councils, the Daily's daily fare was genocide, poverty, corruption, elections, assassinations, the country's first census – and a dramatic 1997 coup that eliminated an elected power-sharing arrangement. As tanks rolled in the streets and Mr. Hun Sen consolidated his power, we worked around the clock to write, edit, print and deliver the paper in the face of daunting logistics and constant fear of shutdown or political violence. But the Western embassies read us every day, knew our value and were heavily invested in Cambodia's democratic progress. They held sway with the government and they had our backs.

The other backward thing about the Daily's mandate was that it wasn't actually the Western "trainers" who did the lion's share of the teaching. It was the Cambodians. While idealistic young expats like me came and went, the Cambodians played the long game. They cultivated sources, translated their country's mysteries for English-language readers and walked the delicate line of truth-telling in the face of threats and harassment. Unlike the expats, they didn't have international careers or embassies to run to when things hit the fan.

And the fan has been taking a beating in recent days. Several Cambodian radio news stations have been shuttered and staff from the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute have been expelled. The president of the country's main opposition party was arrested Sunday and accused of treason. Government-aligned media published leaked accusations of tax evasion against the Daily, which was presented with a sudden, colossal arrears of $6.3-million (U.S.). No negotiations, no chance to appeal, no chance that the bill could be paid or even discussed before Monday's deadline. "In an ordinary process, matters in dispute would be resolved after an audit and private negotiations," the Daily's publisher lamented in a statement announcing the end of publication.

Mr. Hun Sen has clearly calculated that the United States cares less about his part of the world than rising power China does — that under Mr. Trump, Washington will no longer bother to defend democratic norms in a backwater place like Cambodia. It's been lost on few observers that Mr. Hun Sen lustily endorsed Mr. Trump in the weeks before last year's election, then spoke admiringly of the U.S. President's disdain for the American news media.

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"Trump understands that [journalists] are an anarchic group," the Cambodian leader foreshadowed just a few months ago. "Anarchic human rights are rights that destroy the nation. I hope foreign friends understand this."

They may understand it, but in an age of fake news, it's not clear they care. As a result, we're losing the Daily and the truth it told. Monday's final front-page headline, tweeted by editor Jodie DeJonge: "'Descent Into Outright Dictatorship.'"

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