A covert campaign to place articles unfavourable to Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in the US media has been revealed by the expanding online publication Buzzfeed, normally better known for cat pictures and implausible lists.
It revealed payments were made to conservative writers whose work appeared in The Huffington Post, the San Francisco Examiner, the right-leaning The Washington Times, National Review and the online publication RedState.
Buzzfeed discovered the conservative pundit Joshua Trevino had filed documents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act detailing a campaign that ran from May 2008 to April 2011. Trevino, who lost his column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper after failing to disclose his business dealings in Malaysia, was paid $US389,724.70 ($383,599) for a contract with the Malaysian government and associated people. He used the money to pay other commentators.
Jailed former Malaysian finance minister Anwar Ibrahim. Photo: Reuters
In a piece for The Huffington Post, Trevino himself defended the prosecution of Dr Anwar for sodomy – widely condemned in the West as politically motivated – as being more nuanced than was generally understood.
That piece has now been removed from the site. An editor’s note says the author had ”violated HuffPost’s blogger guidelines by not disclosing a financial conflict of interest”. The documents show Trevino was engaged via intermediaries, including the lobbying firm APCO Worldwide and the David All Group, a US online consulting firm.
Buzzfeed reported the filings showed he was also hired to write for the websites MalaysiaMatters and MalaysiaWatcher.
The writers he hired include Ben Domenech, who was paid $US36,000, and Rachel Ehrenfeld, the director of the American Centre for Democracy, who made $US30,000. Others included Seth Mandel, an editor at Commentary, paid $US5500 and Brad Jackson, writing at the time for RedState, who was paid $US24,700.
On Friday, Trevino told Buzz- Feed the arrangement was a fairly standard PR operation.
A commentator for the online media analyst paidContent was not so sanguine. ”The upshot is that prominent American media outlets printed propaganda from a semi-totalitarian foreign government,” wrote Jeff John Roberts. He said the endless demand for content by online publications made placing such paid content easier that it once was.
Domenech, a former Washington Post blogger who runs a daily newsletter, The Transom, stood by his writing, saying he was never told what to write, but conceded he was probably hired because his view that Dr Anwar was a ”particularly dangerous fellow” was well known.