A financial scandal involving a state investment fund created and overseen by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, exposed in turns by investigative journalists, has put a parallel spotlight on the country's deteriorating press freedom situation. A suggestion by the government's top lawyer to strengthen the 1972 Official Secrets Act to penalize journalists who decline to divulge confidential sources with life imprisonment and judicial caning aims to squelch by threat a stream of official leaks that have sustained the politically sensitive story for the past eight months.
Attorney General Mohamed Apandi threatened, in a recent interview with the local Chinese language Sin Chew Daily newspaper, to stiffen the law to target journalists and editors who report and publish official information deemed as confidential, according to English language reports. "In some countries leaking official secrets is a serious offense, such as China, where it carries a death sentence," Apandi said. "If I have 90% evidence, I will charge the journalist, editor, assistant editor, and editor-in-chief. I am serious, no kidding. We have had too many leaks."
Malaysia's 1972 Official Secrets Act broadly defines wrongful collection, possession, or communication of information from official sources. The law has been used sporadically in recent years to intimidate bloggers and journalists, though the last conviction under the Act's vague provisions was handed down in 2000, according to local news reports. Guilty convictions currently carry jail terms of between one and seven years. Apandi's threat to impose life sentences for convictions under the Act would ultimately require parliamentary approval and royal assent under Malaysia's legislative process for amending laws.
Malaysia's parliament has recently passed severe amendments to existing security laws that restrict free expression, CPJ research shows. In April 2015, the legislature approved changes to the country's colonial-era 1948 Sedition Act that gave authorities broad new legal powers to censor online media and made three- to seven-year jail terms mandatory for convictions under the law. In November, parliament's lower house forwarded for government review an undisclosed proposal to amend the Official Secrets Act, reports said. It is not clear if Apandi's mooted changes reflect or diverge from parliament's suggested amendments.
CPJ's emails and phone calls to the attorney general's office requesting clarification of Apandi's comments and intent were not returned.
In July, The Wall Street Journal broke news that Malaysian state investigators were scrutinizing nearly $700 million in transfers from the 1Malyasia Development Berhad (1MDB) investment fund into what appeared to be Najib's personal bank accounts. The story, which Najib denied, cited confidential documents from a government probe, including bank transfer forms and flow charts of cash movements between state agencies, banks, and companies linked to 1MDB. Najib threatened to sue The Wall Street Journal for defamation, but has not filed charges. (The newspaper declined to comment on the status of the legal threat.)
Local and foreign media have followed the Journal's lead with their own probing reports. Those include speculative reports into the abduction and murder of public prosecutor Kevin Morais, who was reportedly leading a government probe into 1MDB at the time of his unexplained death. According to news reports quoting his brother, Morais had leaked a draft charge sheet implicating Najib in alleged corrupt practices punishable by imprisonment that was published on Sarawak Report, a U.K.-based website dedicated to Malaysian news.
The bombshell story was published days after Najib sacked his previous attorney general, Gani Patail, for supposed health reasons. Authorities responded to the anonymously sourced report by blocking Sarawak Report's website and issuing a local arrest warrant for its London-based editor, Clare Rewcastle Brown, on charges of publishing alleged "falsehoods" and "activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy," news reports said. Apandi has since absolved Najib of any wrongdoing related to 1MDB, claiming at a press conference in late January that the near US$700 million in Najib's accounts was a "personal donation" from a Saudi royal family that was not "utilized" and had been returned, according to news reports.
Independent media, however, continue to challenge the official narrative. For example, Sarawak Report reported in January that Najib had entered into secret negotiations with his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party to manufacture a "face-saving exit" from the 1MDB allegations, which are now subject to investigations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland, and the U.S, according to reports. The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked access to the website medium.com after it refused an order to remove a repost of the Sarawak Report story. The media regulator justified the request on the grounds the story was "false," "unsubstantiated," and "misleading."
Rewcastle Brown believes Apandi's apparent intent to stiffen the Official Secrets Act to intimidate journalists and whistle-blowers is a response to her site's muckraking journalism. "These sorts of threats are plainly intended to frighten people into not talking to journalists about things that people in power might find embarrassing," Rewcastle Brown told CPJ. "Now...they are changing their attack to ban exposure of secrets, i.e. their own criminal behavior, which they want to keep secret. On this basis they plan to shove anyone who speaks out in jail for life." She said some of her sources have been "hounded" and "in some cases jailed" when they were found to have provided information to her site.
Local editors fear a stricter secrecy law will inevitably engender more self-censorship among journalists and whistleblowers. "The main concern is that whistle-blowers and journalists are being punished, rather than seen as doing a public service," said Jahabar Sadiq, editor-in-chief of the Malaysian Insider, an independent news website. His site's mother company, The Edge Media Group, saw two of its newspapers banned last year for three months by the Home Ministry for reporting on 1MDB deemed as prejudicial to public order, security, and national interests. "In effect, the government wants to mute our sources, deafen our ears and blind the people to what actually happens in government," he said.
Malaysiakini, another independent news website, is already under legal pressure to reveal its anonymous news sources. On November 6, police and MCMC officials raided the news portal's office and seized a computer over a report claiming that a public prosecutor was inexplicably transferred from an Anti-Corruption Commission unit probing 1MDB allegations. Editor-in-Chief and founder Steven Gan refused to divulge the story's confidential source during over two hours of interrogations by police pursuing a criminal defamation investigation, he told CPJ. "They're trying to bully the online media," said Gan, noting the UMNO-influenced mainstream print and broadcast media has been mostly quiet on the 1MDB controversy. "For us, it's business as usual."
Gan predicts resistance will mount if Apandi's life-in-jail proposal is forwarded for parliamentary approval. Local press groups have already issued statements railing against his media comments. "Public interest, and ultimately national interests, would be better served by allowing public access to information through a Freedom of Information Act to replace the Official Secrets Act," said the Institute of Journalists Malaysia in a recent statement responding to Apandi's threat. "This will make sure that those elected and appointed into positions of power are held to account and bound to the principles of transparency as the country looks to stamp out corruption and abuse of power."
[Reporting from Bangkok]
EDITOR'S NOTE: The eight paragraph has been modified to correct the spelling of Clare Rewcastle Brown's name.