SIMONE FOX KOOB
November 21, 2016
Until late last week, British journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown was looking forward to visiting Singapore and Sydney to march with thousands of people protesting over the Malaysian government’s 1MDB corruption scandal that she has been probing for years.
That was before an alarming discussion with her lawyers swiftly ended the trip.
Rewcastle-Brown was warned last week in no uncertain terms: the threat of arrest was far too high, due in part to the latest attempt by the Malaysian government to silence the investigative journalist.
“The threat of arrest has become quite real,” the veteran journalist told The Australian from her home in London.
“The case about 1MDB and (Singapore’s) BSI bank has been a major case in Singapore. So they have special extradition arrangements with Malaysia, and I was told that Malaysia had been putting enormous pressure to try one way or another to get their hands on me. The lawyers told me it just wasn’t worth the risk,” she said.
Rewcastle-Brown, the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, recounted her most recent run-in with the Najib Razak-led Malaysian government almost nonchalantly. For the experienced foreign correspondent and journalist, it’s just the latest chapter in a decade-long battle against the state-controlled media operating in the Southeast Asian country where she was born.
The past five years in particular has seen the tension escalate, following her sustained and groundbreaking investigation into the 1MDB scandal, whereby billions of dollars were being borrowed by the government and funnelled out of the country through Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad on the instruction of the prime minister.
The story has global implications and exposed ties between corrupt Malaysian government leaders and investment banks in Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore that facilitated transactions for 1MDB.
During this time, Rewcastle-Brown has used her blog The Sarawak Report and the Radio Free Sarawak station to publish her content, but has been forced to constantly modify her web address to fight sustained cyber attacks and has experienced regular radio jamming, both of which she said can be traced back to the government.
“I had a fairly good idea of the types of people I had started writing about, and their willingness to misuse power in their own interests,” she said. “Originally (Sarawak Report) was about indigenous issues. I’d already had the most violent, aggressive and illegal reactions to that. I knew what their tactics tend to be. So when this 1MDB started to arise, once I’d proved massive wrongdoing on the part of the Prime Minister, I wasn’t really any under illusions they would do what they could to make my life difficult.”
The most dramatic step taken by the government came last year when the Royal Malaysia Police announced it had obtained an arrest warrant for Rewcastle-Brown and would be applying to have her placed on Interpol’s Red Notice list, normally reserved for terror suspects. The application was swiftly rejected.
None of these attempts has seen her stray from her goal, which is outlined clearly on her blog: “to offer an alternative vision of justice, transparency and a fairer future”.
“I think that’s my justification, and the reason I feel honour bound to do it,” she said. “Malaysia is full of very good journalists, and if they were free to write about these issues then my actions wouldn’t be necessary.
“This very week, we’ve seen Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini’s entire management dragged up before the newly created cyber crimes court,” she said. “They do come up with the most Orwellian and self-damning terms. The reason they were up there is they filmed a press conference held by a former leader who had voiced that he thought the Attorney-General had exceeded his powers, which by any objective criteria he has, and ought to resign.
“For filming that press conference, they have charged the Malaysiakini management for publishing offensive material. Basically anything you say that they find offensive can get you one-year imprisonment. That’s how bad Malaysia has got for journalists.”
This past weekend, Malaysian reform coalition Bersih held a rally attended by hundreds of thousands in Kuala Lumpur calling for the resignation of their Prime Minister.
Several of the activists who organised the rally have been arrested, including Bersih Chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah, for attempting to undermine Malaysia’ parliamentary democracy. It’s this silencing of dissenting opinion, Rewcastle-Brown says, that drives her to continue to look into 1MDB, even if she has been forced to do it remotely from abroad.
“Issues in Malaysia, I could never get my stories onto mainstream,” she said. “But what I found in my internet site, I was immediately getting hundreds of thousands of hits a week. People are interested in what is happening in this democracy in Southeast Asia and all the huge corruption issues I am digging into. I’ve been getting millions of hits a month.
“I’m an old-fashioned journalist: when I was starting, the internet hadn’t taken off. But the internet was something I got into when I started looking at the problems in Malaysia. It has been absolutely pivotal. Up to now, Malaysia has been a richly resourced country and it has been able to pose as a democracy, mainly by controlling all the media. But it wasn’t really a democracy, and the internet has put them under pressure because everything has been exposed.”