Press freedom takes a beating in yet another twist to the saga of the debt-ridden state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad. The Malaysian government has suspended the publishing permit of The Edge newspaper for its coverage of the fund which it claims threatens public order and national security.
The three-month suspension starting 27 July will affect The Edge Weekly and The Edge Financial Daily, the company said in a statement Friday (25 July).
The media group has around 350 staff. Earlier this week, the authorities blocked access to the website Sarawak Report, claiming the British-based portal had breached the country's internet law.
1MDB, with debts of over $11bn is being investigated by several authorities in Malaysia for financial mismanagement and graft. The state fund's advisory board is chaired by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
This comes on the back of news that the prime minister is considering whether to sue the Wall Street Journal and its publisher Dow Jones over allegations pertaining to 1MDB in two of its reports earlier this month.
Even Najib's brother, Nazir Razak chairman of financial group CIMB condemned the suspension.
"Recent 1MDB coverage seem outstanding but if there were flaws then correct them or take legal recourse," he wrote on Instagram on Friday.
The government has also imposed travel bans on three persons – two MPs and The Edge Media Group owner Tong Kooi Ong.
MP Tony Pua was stopped on 22 July from leaving the country at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport while MP Rafizi Ramli and Tong found out they were barred from leaving the country following checks with the Immigration Department.
The Edge vows to continue coverage of 1MDB
The media group's publisher and chief executive Ho Kay Tat told reporters after briefing the newspaper's staff at their offices in Kuala Lumpur on Friday that the company will be filing for a judicial review on Monday (27 July).
"We will be filing it on Monday and we hope to get a speedy hearing. We must file a judicial review as a matter of principle because we don't think the suspension is justified," he said.
Despite the suspension of the two papers, Ho vowed to continue reporting on developments pertaining the 1MDB via its online platforms.
He noted that none of the newspapers' past reports have been challenged in court.
"We will not apologise as we have not done anything wrong," Ho said. He added that the company is now considering expanding its digital news base for the next three months during the suspension.
"We are looking at several possibilities. One of them is to use the digital platform."
Earlier this week, the Edge published an article claiming that Malaysians and foreigners had plotted to steal $1.83bn from the fund in 2009. In the past, it had published reports and analysis on the fund's dealings which it described as "opaque", cash flow problems and allegations of overpriced power asset purchases.
The newspaper said: "Controversy over 1MDB also stems from the fact that its advisory board chairman is Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also the finance minister."
Newspaper admits misleading whistlebower for data
Separately, the publisher admitted Friday that it had misled Swiss national Xavier Andrew Justo into believing that he would be paid $2m for handing over data stolen from his former employer, PetroSaudi.
The evidence obtained was used as the basis for stories of graft at the 1MDB.
"Yes we misled him. But that was the only way to get hold of the evidence to expose how a small group of Malsysians and foreigners cheated the people of Malaysia of $1.83bn," Tong and Ho said in a joint response to the Straits Times.
In an earlier interview with the Straits Times, Justo claimed that he did not receive the promised payment. Justo is currently under arrest in Thailand in connection with an attempt to blackmail PetroSaudi.
Justo told the newspaper that he had met Tong, Ho and Sarawak Report's Clare Rewcastle-Brown in Singapore to negotiate the sale of the data and that both Tong and Rewcastle-Brown had told him that they planned to modify the data to bring down Najib.
Tong, Ho and Rewcastle-Brown have all denied allegations of tampering with the documents.
"Surely if we had such intentions we would not tell it to someone we were meeting for the first time. All the more so when we know he will be upset with us because we will eventually not pay him what he wants," the statement from Ho and Tong said.
They said they had digitally fingerprinted the hard disk given to them by Justo, to secure its original contents. They have since been handed over to the authorities.
Retract suspension order, says Lawyers for Liberty
Lawyers for Liberty have strongly criticised the government for its move, saying it was "the most serious assault on press freedom."
"The authorities must be reminded that journalism is not a crime. Press freedom is an indispensable component of any modern and democratic society as it functions as a form of check and balance against government excesses.
"Such authoritarian behaviour unfortunately sends a chilling message to the press to self-censor on issues such as 1MDB or else they may invite retaliation," its Executive Director Eric Paulsen said.
He urged the Home Ministry, which issued the suspension order, to retract it and "let the public and market forces decide whether The Edge's coverage on the 1MDB scandal had been credible or otherwise."
The organisation noted that the Malaysian government seems to be "more concerned in investigating those who have leaked the 1MDB information or those who have made further use of the information rather than the extremely serious exposes themselves."
It said investigating the whistle blowers or the press is clearly misconceived as it is like shooting the messenger bearing the bad news.