Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen pays tribute to The Malaysian Insider
Malaysian Insider’s Talented and Courageous Editor Jahabar Sadiq
Malaysian Insider, one of Malaysia’s two most influential independent news websites, has shut down publication after eight years, the victim partly of financial difficulties and more because of unrelenting political pressure on the part of beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak, sources in Kuala Lumpur said.
The closure of the Insider leaves Malaysiakini, which has published since 1999, as the leading independent news site. It now carries English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil editions.
“We worked as impartial journalists to inform Malaysians and other readers so that they could make informed decisions,” said Editor Jahabar Sadiq in a parting note on the website. “We worked to make all voices heard in this marketplace of ideas. But our work in The Malaysian Insider has now come to an end in a Malaysia that more than ever requires more clarity, transparency and information.”
The website was said to be losing RM300,000-400,000 (US$73.000-93,000) per month before it was hit hard when the government blocked it permanently on Feb. 25. It printed a story quoting a source from the panel that oversees the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission saying there is sufficient evidence to file charges over alleged financial misdeeds by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali refused to use the evidence to charge the Prime Minister with wrongdoing in January. The blockage put it into even more financial peril.
Growth under Edge
Malaysian Insider was taken over by The Edge Media Group in 2014 and expanded considerably. However, it actually became a casualty of the enormous scandal over the state-funded 1Malaysia Development Bhd. that has engulfed Najib and expanded to several countries.
Tong Kooi Ong, the owner of the Edge Group, and Ho Kay Tat, the publisher, ran into deep trouble with the government last year when they printed a detailed series of articles based on emails stolen by Andre Xavier Justo, a Swiss national, from a mysterious Middle Eastern oil exploration company called PetroSaudi International that implicated Jho Low, the flamboyant financier who helped to set up the troubled 1Malaysia Development Bhd. fund, backed by the Malaysian government. The documents detailed a huge web of misuse of public money.
The government cracked down on The Edge, Malaysia’s most influential financial publication, suspending it and its sister news operations from publication for three months, later shortened to two months by the courts, and temporarily jailing Tong and Ho. The suspension is said to have played havoc with The Edge’s finances, cutting circulation and frightening away advertisers.
In a press release put out March 14, Ho Kay Tat said The Edge Media Group had incurred losses of RM10 million in the 20 months since it had acquired Malaysian Insider. Negotiations with three existing media groups to take over the publication fell through, he said. “Despite the fact that TMI is one of the top three news portals based on traffic in Malaysia because of its courageous news reporting, it did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going,” he said.
“A lot had to do with political pressure,” a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur said in a telephone conversation. “It may have been a commercial decision, but the major problem was political pressure on Tong and The Edge. Both Tong and Kay Tat have been hailed in by the Police twice over the Insider’s reports on the MACC, so in the end they decided that because it was losing money, it was also putting too much pressure on the other businesses, so what’s the point? It was a business decision.”
In its eight years of operation, Malaysian Insider established a standard of professional journalism that is rare in Malaysia, especially in websites but in the mainstream media as well. All of the major media in the country are owned by component political parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional, or national coalition. Impartial news does not leak out of any of these black holes.
“The closure of Malaysian Insider will leave a huge vacuum in independent reporting in Malaysia, regrettably at a time the country desperately needs the media to play its role of protecting the national interest,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.” It is no coincidence that the probing and respected news publication was forced to close down a month after the government media regulator blocked access to its site. Najib clearly hopes that by censoring and intimidating the media that the 1MDB scandal story will simply go away. But the more pressure he puts on the media, the more guilty he looks and the more damage he does to his already battered legacy.”
Najib is fast becoming a pariah in international diplomacy, not just because of the extent of the scandal but because of the astonishing lengths he has gone to in his attempts to contain it, including firing his deputy prime minister and the attorney general, eviscerating investigative panels looking into the matter and neutralizing other investigations.
Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen
Two suspicious deaths have occurred in connection with Najib’s affairs involving his personal bank accounts at Ambank in Kuala Lumpur. In one, Hussain Najadi, the founder of the bank, was gunned down in a parking lot in 2013. His son, Pascal Najadi, has charged that his father had complained loudly about Najib’s financial activities and those of United Malays National Organization figures seeking to involve him in what Pascal said were suspect financial dealings. In the second, Kevin Morais, a senior investigator looking into Najib’s accounts for the MACC was murdered, his body stuffed into an oil barrel and rolled into a river last September. (READ: Malaysia’s AG: Whistle-blowing Detrimental to Health)
Najib has systematically sought to close down all dissenting voices. Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel, the two most active international websites, have been blocked. At least 33 opponents of the regime have been charged with sedition including seven opposition members of parliament for making remarks critical of the government, the judiciary or Malaysia’s sultans. Last year the government pushed through amendments to the Sedition Act to increase penalties for violations and make it easier to use the law against online speech. Dozens of people have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests.
The government also brought back indefinite detention without trial by passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows a government-appointed board to impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely with no possibility of judicial review. In December, it passed a sweeping National Security Council law that allows the prime minister to declare security areas within which restraints on police power are suspended.