A pressing concern

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Australian cameraman Louie Eroglu (left) and journalist Linton Besser. Photo from Twitter.

Amrita Malhi goes beyond the headlines to examine what’s behind the expulsion of an Australian journalist and cameraman from Malaysia.

ABC Four Corners journalist Linton Besser and camera operator Louie Eroglu are returning to Australia, having been “deported” from Malaysia after authorities decided not to charge them with obstructing a public servant under Section 186 of Malaysia’s Penal Code.

In recent days, both men have been detained in a Kuching hotel, facing allegations by the Malaysian government that they had attempted to “barge into” the path of Prime Minister Najib Razak, not only creating a security risk for him and his minders, but also violating Malaysian journalistic norms.

Both men and their employer—Australia’s public national broadcaster—deny breaching security boundaries, responding that they had simply questioned Najib about a corruption scandal relating to state development fund 1MDB that he seems unable to cast aside. Earlier that day, Besser and Eroglu had attended a press conference on an older scandal that also continues to haunt Najib, surrounding the purchase of several Scorpene submarines from a French defence firm. At that press conference, Besser was addressed as “eh, white man”, and asked if he had been paid by an opposition party to “do a provocation”, presumably aimed at Najib.

The actions of the Malaysian authorities were met by strong comments by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who, apparently unconvinced that the two men had entered Najib’s personal space, instead criticised Malaysia for its attitude to their questions. In her statement, she declared that she was “deeply concerned” by this “crackdown on freedom of speech”, adding that she was particularly concerned when such crackdowns took place in “democracies” like Malaysia.

Bishop took up the issue with the Malaysian authorities and organised consular support for the pair, before Malaysian Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali announced that they would not be charged as previously advised. Later, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed told media source Channel News Asia that relations with Australia would not be strained over the issue.

Nur Jazlan has also announced that the two men had been deported for breaching immigration laws that apply to Sarawak, seeming to refer to an agreement with the federal government by which that state restricts entry to its territory, in addition to Malaysian federal laws. Meanwhile, Four Corners Executive Producer Sally Neighbour has stated that the pair have not been “deported”, simply released without a coherent case to answer.

The Malaysian government’s change of heart, and new explanation for the men’s expulsion, are related to Bishop’s decision to frame their detention as an issue of freedom of speech in democracies. Malaysia is in the midst of a major political realignment ahead of its next scheduled election in 2018, and Prime Minister Najib Razak is under serious pressure to step down because of the corruption allegations against him.

Yet rather than announce his exit from his position, Najib has instead moved to shut down corruption investigations, prevent individuals from travelling to make allegations in foreign jurisdictions, sack critics inside his ruling party UMNO and block domestic media outlets from reporting the allegations.

Opposition parties and civil society activists have responded with a Citizens’ Declaration, teaming up with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has recently resigned his UMNO membership and since been sacked as adviser to Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil producer. Naming their intervention the “Save Malaysia” movement, this group is alleging that Najib’s Malaysia is “corrupt”, “undemocratic” and in need of reform, pointing directly at media and national security crackdowns as key issues affecting Malaysian public life. While many Malaysians question Mahathir’s capacity to lead a campaign for rights and liberties, the emergence of this popular front nevertheless highlights widespread domestic concern about whether Malaysia can truly be called a democracy.

This development also follows a large rally calling for electoral reform organised by NGO Bersih in 2015, and a “dangerous” 2013 election result which highlighted serious problems with Malaysia’s electoral system. Nevertheless, when defending Najib’s decision to remain in power, Malaysian government ministers such as Azalina Othman argue his position is legitimate, having been won in a fair, democratic contest. Meanwhile, Malaysian political parties are currently engaging in a complex series of manoeuvres designed to position themselves to win the popular vote in the next election.

Such arguments and manoeuvres indicate that Malaysia wishes to be seen as a democracy, regardless of the serious criticisms now mounting against this claim, both at home and abroad. Nations like Australia too wish to see this nearby neighbour in precisely the same way, in light of each nation’s importance to the other in regional trade and security cooperation.

In the context of these wishes and interconnected interests, Bishop’s statement that democracies should uphold their commitments to freedom of speech have carried sufficient weight to produce a change of heart from the Malaysian government.

For its part, Australia, usually reluctant to issue public statements on Malaysian democratic infractions, has apparently not thought it wise to decline to comment this time. Not only are the ABC staff members both Australian nationals, but Australia is also seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and is actively campaigning to promote freedom of expression in the Asian region.

No longer able to portray and charge the ABC pair as a “security risk” to Najib, the authorities have instead opted to explain their expulsion as a deportation for an immigration offence.

Meanwhile, The Malaysian Insider, a Malaysian online news outlet recently blocked for reporting on Najib and the 1MDB scandal, has announced its closure, citing commercial pressures on its parent brand. Evidently, there are consequences for drawing too much domestic attention to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, and they are more keenly felt at home than abroad.

Dr Amrita Malhi is a researcher and writer on histories and politics in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and its interAsian contexts. She is Secretary of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, and holds an affiliation with the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Her website is www.amritamalhi.com

Listen to an interview on Malaysia’s politics with Amrita Malhi at ABC Radio National’s Drive program.