Dispatches: Malaysian Corruption Scandal Threatens Free Speech

Malaysia (HRW) – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who will be in London next week to pitch foreign investment, is mired in political controversy at home. The corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1 Malaysia Development Berhad fund refuses to die, despite Najib’s “exoneration” by the attorney general he appointed in July after summarily dismissing the previous one.  With ongoing investigations of the troubled investment fund in countries ranging from Switzerland to Singapore, the scandal has generated international interest.  Speaking publicly or writing about it in Malaysia, however, is risky business.

In February, the government blocked access to The Malaysian Insider, an online news portal, after it reported on the scandal, and warned other media against publishing “unverified” information.  After a month of being blocked, The Malaysian Insider ceased operations.  The government also blocked access to other websites, including the UK-based Sarawak Report, after they posted articles on the scandal.

Lawyers, opposition politicians, and activists who have openly criticized the government’s handling of the scandal or called for Najib to resign have found themselves the subject of police investigations for sedition or “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” Those posting critical comments on social media have been targeted under the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Even the highly respected Malaysian Bar Association, long an outspoken defender of human rights and the rule of law, is in the government’s crosshairs. In March, after the bar passed a resolution calling for the resignation of the attorney general to restore public confidence in the administration of justice, the government opened a sedition investigation of the three lawyers who introduced the resolution and the secretary of the bar, and has sought to obtain minutes of the bar’s confidential meetings.

Malaysia and the United Kingdom have longstanding ties, but when Prime Minister David Cameron met Najib last July, Cameron is reported to have urged Najib to “clean up his government.” By that, Cameron surely didn’t mean block the news media from reporting on a corruption scandal, prosecute people for criticizing the government’s handling of that scandal, and threaten the independence of the nation’s preeminent association of lawyers. Najib’s trip may prove to be a hard sell.

This report prepared by Phil Robertson for Human Rights Watch.