RSF calls on Malaysia to uphold British journalist's right to appeal two-year sentence served in absentia

A court in Malaysia has ordered British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown, sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for defamation, to present herself in person if she wants to appeal. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls once again on the Malaysian judiciary to overturn this abusive sentence, which seems intended as a warning to any other journalist seeking to expose corruption.

Rewcastle Brown, the editor-in-chief of online news site Sarawak Report, has specialised in investigating corruption cases in Malaysia including one of the biggest financial scandals in the country’s history, known as 1MDB. She was sentenced in February to two years in prison on a charge of “defaming” the wife of a political figure in a book on the case, without even being informed of the hearing. 

Despite being tried in absentia then, the High Court in Terengganu said on May 7 that a scheduled case management hearing could not go ahead without her attending. The next case management hearing has been set for June 6, according to local media.

“The case against Clare Rewcastle Brown has been Orwellian from the start. It was unacceptable to put her on trial and convict her without giving her the right to defend herself, and it is unacceptable as well to seek to impede her right to appeal. We call on the Terengganu High Court to put right this injustice, and stand in solidarity with Rewcastle Brown and all journalists who face judicial harassment in the country.

Cédric Alviani
RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director

Rewcastle Brown said her lawyer had identified no less than five basic violations of Malaysia’s own Criminal Procedure Code that led to the judgement against her.

“Instead of tossing out this fatally flawed jail sentence against me, the local high court’s response has been to order me to present myself in Terengganu, probably with a view of throwing out my appeal although the trial procedures leading to the conviction are all fatally flawed, illegal and therefore null...It is a damning illustration of the pressures still facing journalists in Malaysia, where freedoms have slid backwards despite two successive elections that mandated reforms and actions against the abuse of power and office.

Clare Rewcastle Brown
Sarawak Report Editor-in-chief

The defamation case relates to a line in a book published in 2018, in which Rewcastle Brown incorrectly stated that the wife of a local governor – it was actually his sister – had links to a businessman involved in a financial scandal. The journalist recognised her mistake and corrected it in a second edition. If the sentence is upheld on appeal, or if the appeal is not allowed to go ahead, the Malaysian authorities may try to execute the sentence and put her in jail for two years.

A vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has been affected by considerable political instability in recent years. The authorities still use defamation suits against journalists and defenders of press freedom and regularly block news websites critical to the government.

In response to Malaysia's drop to 107th rank out of 180 in RSF's 2024 World Press Freedom Index, from 73rd in the previous edition, Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil promised last week to “formulate sustainable efforts” to improve press freedom, a commitment to reforms which  RSF offered to accompany and support.

107/ 180
Score : 52.07
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