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.