Malaysian Police Raid Independent Website

As an indication of Malaysia’s deepening crackdown on dissent, for the second time in four days police have raided the offices of Malaysiakini, the country’s biggest independent news website, threatening criminal defamation charges over a story that the Law Minister, Nancy Shukri, had already confirmed as accurate.

Seven officials showed up Monday, Nov. 9, searching for the source of the story, which said yet another deputy public prosecutor investigating allegations of financial wrongdoing by Prime Minister Najib Razak has been neutralized by being transferred out of the Malaysian Anti-Crime Commission special operations division.

“I expect the fact is that there have been too many leaks over this issue over the past few months,” said Malaysiakini’s Editor-in-Chief Steven Gan in an interview. “They need to stop it, they need to punish someone. We are continuing to publish, we will not be intimidated by this action, this is police harassment, we do not welcome that."

“We are not worried about it,” Gan, said. “When they came Friday, they threatened us with arrest. But I think our story is solid, they are just trying to make life difficult. They asked for the source of our story, but obviously I am not going to answer.” He said the news site would cooperate with the police but would refuse to give up sources.

On Nov. 6, police raided both Malaysiakini and the Kuala Lumpur-based Star tabloid over a report of the internal transfer of MACC officer Ahmad Shazalee Abdul Khairi, who was said to be part of an investigation probing massive unfunded liabilities on the part of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund, which Prime Minister Najib Razak serves as chief economic advisor. Najib is also under fire for an unexplained US$700 million transferred to his personal accounts in 2013 before being transferred out again and disappearing from a Singapore bank to an unknown destination.

The story was initially denied by Mohamad Apandi Ali, the attorney general, but the website’s story was later confirmed by Shukri. Ten officials spent three hours at Malaysiakini, Gan said, demanding to know the source of the story, eventually leaving with one of the news site’s computers.

Today, they took away two more computers as well as questioning two members of the staff. Gan said he wasn’t sure what might be found in the computers.

Over recent weeks, as pressure has grown on Najib, the government has responded with a harsh assault on the press, opposition leaders, members of reform organizations and others, seeking to stop dissent at all cost.

Last week, police questioned former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s fiercest critic, possibly to charge him with criminal defamation over remarks he made at an Aug. 29 rally sponsored by Bersih 4.0, the electoral reform NGO. Maria Chin Abdullah, the head of Bersih, has been charged with defamation.

Multiple sackings

Najib has fired the Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, forced the Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, into retirement, transferred the deputy head of the police special branch intelligence division, neutralized a special parliamentary committee seeking answers over corruption, questioned seven members of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission over leaks about the case and sent the head of the MACC “on vacation.” He has threatened virtually all the top leaders of the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition with sedition and sought to muzzle an investigation by Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, into illegal transfers of funds. He also suspended the publication of The Edge newspaper group for three months after a series of damaging articles on both scandals.

None of that has slowed the torrent of revelations over the twin scandals, which have crippled his personal popularity and that of the United Malays National Organization, which he heads. His government also faces international criticism, with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issuing a statement saying opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s treatment in jail violates prohibitions against torture and demanding that he be freed immediately. His once warm friendship with US President Barack Obama has become a millstone around the White House neck.

Many of the revelations have come from the Sarawak Report, edited and written by the UK-based Clare Rewcastle Brown. The government sought her international arrest by Interpol only to be turned down.

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Lightning rod

Malaysiakini has been raided three times over the past 15 years, Gan said, the harshest in 2003 when 19 of the website’s computers were confiscated. Most recently, they raided the offices in the suburb of Petaling Jaya to confiscate books by Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, the irrepressible cartoonist who has made it a specialty to lampoon Najib and his portly wife, Rosmah Mansor. Zulkiflee has been threatened with nine counts of sedition which make him liable for 43 years in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty and he continues to draw cartoons and print them in Malaysiakini.

The website has faced a long and harsh series of harassment since the time it was founded in 1999 partly on funds provided by hedge fund financier and democracy advocate George Soros including frequent DDOS attacks – flooding the website’s servers with millions of responses to overload them. Informal threats have long been a problem as well. Nonetheless, it has long been self-supporting and prints independent news in three languages. As the scandals have grown and as the economy turns down, increasingly readers are turning to the independent websites because of the falling credibility of the mainstream press, both in Chinese, Malay and English, all of which are owned by the three major political parties.