The authorities have been targeting news media that have covered an investigation launched by attorney general Abdul Gani Patail into allegations that money from a development fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was channelled into Najib’s personal accounts.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, which regulates the Malaysian media, blocked access on 20 July to Sarawak Report, an English-language news website that Clare Rewcastle Brown edits from her base in London, because of its coverage of the investigation.
The authorities then issued a warrant for her arrest on 4 August on a charge of “activity detrimental to democracy.”
Two print publications that had been covering the investigation, The Edge Weekly and its sister, The Edge Financial Daily, were meanwhile suspended by the Interior ministry on 27 July for three months for reporting that was deemed “prejudicial to public and national interest.” Their websites have not, however, been closed.
“We call on the Interior ministry to drop all charges against Clare Rewcastle Brown, to rescind the suspension of The Edge publications and to stop blocking the Sarawak Report website,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.
“It is completely unacceptable for the government to harass journalists because of their investigative coverage of matters involving the Prime minister or any other Malaysian official or to censor media outlets that are just doing their job by covering a story of interest to the entire Malaysia public.”
In a statement issued in London about the arrest warrant, Rewcastle Brown said: “This action could hardly be more counter-productive on the part of a government that is seeking to assure the world that it is a sane democracy.”
The Edge and Sarawak Report have been providing regular coverage of allegations of negligence, fraud and embezzlement involving 1MDB, which was funded partly by the state and partly by United Arab Emirates investors. In particular, Prime Minister Najib, who is closely linked to 1MDB, is accused of embezzling 700 million dollars of state funds and using the money to finance his 2013 campaign.
On 29 July, Najib fired Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the attorney general and other officials who had been pressing for a government response to the allegations. Around ten people were arrested during a demonstration on 1 August to demand Najib’s departure.
By blocking access to the Sarawak Report website, Najib is breaking a 2011 promise to never censor the Internet. New Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi confirmed the government’s intention to continue flouting freedom of expression and information when he told a ruling UMNO convention on 2 August that it would not hesitate to bring swift legal proceedings against journalists who “spin” their news coverage. They would have a “high price to pay”, he said.
As the threats to the media intensify, it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to investigate and write about matters of public interest. The methods deployed by the government to silence its critics include invoking the Sedition Act, a draconian piece of legislation dating back to 1948 that has been used repeatedly for the past two years to prosecute journalists and bloggers.
Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, a cartoonist better known as Zunar, will be tried on 9 September on sedition charges over nine cartoons about government corruption and the high-profile trial of Anwar Ibrahim, a leading opposition politician.
Ho Kay Tat, the publisher of The Edge, and Jahabar Sadiq, the CEO of The Malaysian Insider, a news website also known as TMI, were arrested under the Sedition Act on 31 March, a day after three TMI editors – managing editor Lionel Morais, Bahasa-language editor Amin Shah Iskandar and features and analysis editor Zulkifli Sulong – were also arrested under the act.
Malaysiakini news website reporter Susan Loone was arrested and charged under the Sedition Act on 4 September 2014.