Australian journalists harassed and threatened in Malaysia

Bangkok, March 14, 2016 – Authorities should immediately lift restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement of two Australian journalists in Malaysia and drop all legal threats against them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Linton Besser, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter, and Louie Eroglu, an ABC camera operator, were detained for more than six hours in the Malaysian city of Kuching on Saturday after questioning Prime Minister Najib Razak about politically sensitive allegations involving deposits worth more than US$1 billion from a state-run investment fund, known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), into the premier’s personal bank accounts, news reports said.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

ABC reported that Besser and Eroglu, both contributors to the state broadcaster’s “Four Corners” investigative TV news program, were surrounded by Najib’s personal security detail soon after they approached the premier while he was visiting a local mosque. The reporters were allowed to leave the scene after being questioned, but were later re-arrested at their hotel and taken to a police station, the same ABC report said.

Authorities temporarily seized their passports, but later returned the documents upon the reporters’ release, according to news reports. Authorities ordered both reporters to remain in Kuching City until the attorney general’s office decides whether to file criminal charges for allegedly crossing a security line and aggressively approaching the prime minister. ABC denied that their reporters crossed a security line or behaved in an aggressive manner, according to the report.

If charged under article 136 of Malaysia’s Penal Code, which outlines penalties for obstructing state officials, Besser and Eroglu could each face a maximum sentence of two years in prison. News reports said the attorney general’s office is expected to decide by Wednesday whether it will file formal charges. The two reporters were still in Kuching as of late Monday, according to ABC.

“Simply asking the prime minister a question should not be grounds for detention or any kind of legal threat,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior representative in Southeast Asia, said. “We call on Malaysia to lift all restrictions on Linton Besser and Louie Eroglu, and on all reporters who have been harassed for reporting on serious corruption allegations.”

Malaysian authorities have censored, harassed, and threatened punitive legal action against reporters who have uncovered and published details of the 1MDB fund controversy, CPJ research shows. Last year, authorities banned two newspapers run by The Edge Media Group for three months for reporting on the 1MDB affair they deemed as “prejudicial to public order, security and national interests.” The group’s affiliated independent news website, Malaysian Insider, announced today that it would cease publication after being blocked last month by the government’s media regulator in punitive response to its critical 1MDB news coverage.