New Press Crackdown in Malaysia

The Malaysian government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, beset by a swarm of scandals overseas, is doing its level best to make sure that as few as possible of the country’s 30.6 million citizens learn about them.

Unfortunately its efforts have not stopped the cascade of international stories in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States and France that are making Malaysia look like Zimbabwe outside the country. Although they are leaking in, mostly the stories are not reaching deeply into the population. Now the domestic news portals that reprint them or print other news of the scandals are being blocked or threatened.

The New York Post on Feb. 28 joined the crowd, dropping a 1,200 word story saying US federal investigators “are probing what could end up being ‘one of the largest money-laundering frauds in the world’” – allegations over the flamboyant activities of the precocious Penang-born financier Jho Taek Low, who helped Najib set up the disastrous 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the government-backed state investment fund. Swiss authorities announced they are investigating 1MDB for money laundering in the loss of US$4 billion – immediately after Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali told a press conference he had cleared Najib of wrongdoing.

The Financial Times on Feb. 26 carried a full-page story raising questions about the activities of former Goldman Sachs Asia Vice President Tim Leissner in engineering the US$3 billion worth of bonds that launched 1MDB in the first place.

In an effort to contain the damage, in recent weeks, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has blocked Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and the blogging platform Medium. On Feb. 27, it blocked the popular domestic website Malaysian Insider after the news site printed an exclusive story saying the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had amassed enough evidence to file criminal charges against Najib for his part in the 1MDB scandal as well as a mysterious US$681 million contribution to his personal account in AmBank in 2013.

The Center for Independent Journalism in Malaysia issued a statement after the closing of Malaysian Insider, calling it “clearly an assault on media freedom, freedom of information and Malaysia’s promise of a free internet.” The government’s recent actions, the center said, “appear to be part of a concerted and intensified effort to shut down dissenting views, particularly those questioning the integrity and leadership of Najib Razak.”

Reporters Without Borders jumped in with international criticism on Feb. 16, saying the press watchdog “condemns the government decision, after a series of corruption scandals, to prioritize the intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers, who just do their duty to inform the public.”

There is no indication when, if ever, the MCMC will unblock access to Malaysian Insider. Editor Jahabar Sadiq, who said the publication stands by its story, said the blockage has cost about 30 percent of its readers. He said he has been given no idea when or if the blockage will be lifted.

Pressure is growing on the independent press. In early February, Apandi Ali told the Chinese language Sin Chew Daily he is thinking of asking the parliament to amend the Official Secrets Act to increase penalties for those who leak state secrets and journalists who report them to life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane.

In December, the parliament pushed through national security legislation that the government says will strengthen its ability to counter rising threats from Islamic jihadis such as Islamic State, but that critics say is actually aimed at jailing critics. The measure gives the prime minister the ability to declare so-called “security zones,” within which authorities would have wide powers of arrest, search and seizure without a warrant and to hold individuals indefinitely without trial. No criteria are given for declaring the security zones, meaning the government can declare any part of the country a security zone and arrest people it doesn’t like, critics said.

In addition, the government is using sedition laws – which Najib once promised to dismantle when he was in a stronger position – against any critics who raise their heads. By one count, threats or charges have been delivered against 160 people, many of them the most prominent heads of opposition parties. The Official Secrets Act has been used to go after such individuals as the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Rafizi Ramli and others for exposing what are clearly criminal misdoings.

News portals have largely taken over as the country’s source of news, given the fact that the mainstream media – newspapers, television and radio – are all owned by political parties aligned with the government. They are all under threat, editors and publishers say. The influential Edge Group of financial publications was shut down for two months in July last year after printing deeply detailed information about the billions of dollars that disappeared from 1MDB.

Now, a source who declined to be named told Asia Sentinel that the editor and publisher of The Edge and its subsidiaries has backed off the aggressive coverage that made it a must read. “What can they do?” He said. “They have 130 employees that have to take care of. They don’t want to be closed for good.”

The paper owns Malaysian Insider, which is said to be losing millions of ringgit annually. It has put the news portal up for sale, but given that it is now blocked, a sale looks problematical.

“We have no clue when they are going to strike next,” Steven Gan, the editor of Malaysiakini, which counts 400,000 readers per day. “We never know what story they will find a problem with. We have never experienced this before. We have never been blocked, but they are going into uncharted territory. It is hard to work out what to expect.”