Despite harassment, Rewcastle-Brown has no regret exposing 1MDB scandal

‘The harassment is a sign that I’m doing the right stories.’

Sarawak Report editor Clare Recastle-Brown has no regret exposing the 1MDB scandal which helped the anti-corruption movement that led to the downfall of former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak.

She said exposing the scandal has made her a target of lawsuits and harassment but maintained she has no qualm about her work.

“No, the harassment is a sign that I’m doing the right stories. Because I provoked such reactions, that tells me that I’m doing the right thing,” Rewcastle-Brown said when asked about whether she regretted doing the many reports exposing the 1MDB scandal over a number of years.

She was attending a virtual forum hosted by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Freedom Film Network (FFN) and Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) last night, in conjunction with the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

Rewcastle-Brown also took the opportunity to commend local journalists for their bravery in upholding the truth and conceded that her privilege as a foreign journalist did offer her some of the freedom that local journalists do not have.

She said Malaysian authorities had tried to “export” some of the intimidation tactics used against local dissidents, including a criminal defamation charge against her.

But her British citizenship means the reach of the authorities could not get as far as they hoped.

“I have a lot of protections in the jurisdiction that I’m in. Such tactics are regarded with ridicule, horror, and disgust by governments here.

“So when I received a criminal defamation warrant from a foreign country, as Britain or Europe would see it, they would say – but we don’t have these laws, and journalists shouldn’t be treated like that,” said Rewcastle-Brown, a Sarawakian by birth.

Speaking on the subject of press freedom in Malaysia, Rewcastle-Brown said the country is seeing an increase in self-censorship since the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government.

“I, as an outside reader, see a nervousness now in the way journalists in Malaysia cover events.

“There’s no doubt that you see self-censorship now in the media that didn’t exist when there was that brief explosion of media freedom after GE14,” she noted.

Rewcastle-Brown believes that the Malaysian government has to be pushed into accepting that criticism is good for themselves, and the media in the country ought to continue to argue for the case.

Quiet optimism

Malaysiakini co-founder and chief executive officer Premesh Chandran also spoke at the event and expressed some optimism for press freedom in the country.

However, prominent local activist Siti Kassim expressed shock at Premesh’s remark in the live chat section.

In response, Premesh clarified that he was touching on the relative progress made in press freedom over the past 20 years.

He said much has changed since he first co-founded Malaysiakini two decades ago, including the government attitude towards the press which he found to be more lenient than in the past.

While conceding there is still a long way to go for the country to achieve high levels of press freedom, Premesh believes that press freedom will change for the better as the Malaysians’ attitudes are beginning to change as well.

“I’m not saying that there is no repression. What I’m trying to emphasise is that the ground has shifted.

“What people desire, what they read, they no longer desire a compliant media. It’s not so much as to whether the government has become more lenient towards the media, it’s that the people have moved,” he said.

Premesh argued that no amount of demands from civil society groups will change press freedom for the better, but it is the demand of masses for independent and critical press that will bring about a better future for all journalists.

“If we want to change laws in the country, it’s not going to happen through petitions, it’s going to happen on the ground where people are demanding and essentially refusing to read media which are not independent,” he said.

Legal help appreciated but not enough

Noting the climate of press freedom in Malaysia, The Vibes editor Emmanuel Samarathisa said having legal assistance can be helpful for media companies to deal with harassment or crackdowns from state actors.

“There were times when I think I was called to the police station over an article I wrote, and I knew I could deal with these situations with confidence as there are lawyers to back me up.

“Having legal coverings eases you (as a journalist) a little bit,” he said.

However, that is not enough to deter the attempt to intimidate the media in Malaysia, and Emmanuel said journalists like him have to often conduct assessments of which stories are worth taking the legal risk to go against state or non-state actors alike.

When asked what would be his call of action to journalists in Malaysia, Emmanuel encouraged others in the industry to remain determined in spite of the tough reality they are facing.

“We (as journalists) still need to keep fighting the good fight, that’s what we are here for,” he said.

During the event, the hosts also launched the Purple Book, a guidebook for journalists in the country which contains resources for journalists to protect themselves when encountering police arrest and legal issues.


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