A British investigative journalist has been sentenced in absentia to two years in prison by a Malaysian court for criminally defaming the country’s former Queen Nur Zahirah in her book “The Sarawak Report – The Inside Story of the 1MDB Expose”.
Clare Rewcastle Brown accuses Malaysia of seeking “political revenge” for her damning reporting that exposed corruption in the upper echelons of power in the country.
The 1MDB scandal toppled the powerful former prime minister Najib Razak and saw him jailed, as well as corruption charges brought against Goldman Sachs executives.
In an interview with the BBC, 64-year-old Rewcastle Brown said: “I’m afraid this is malicious, it is politically motivated. And I see it as revenge for my public interest journalism.
“I think there are a lot of very powerful and wealthy people in Malaysia who are revengeful that I identified the corruption of their former prime minister [Najib Razak], who remains popular and powerful and wealthy.
“And I think that it’s no coincidence that just two or three days after [he] failed to get a pardon from the [Malaysian] King that would have let him out of jail after a fraction of his sentence, that this sentence was then passed against me.”
She is appealing the sentence, which she says came as a surprise from a single-day hearing. She says she was neither notified nor given a chance to defend herself.
Rewcastle Brown says she was targetted for her reporting on the multibillion-dollar scandal involving the theft of $4.5bn from the Malaysian sovereign fund. Investigations by Rewcastle Brown – who is also the founder and editor of the website Sarawak Report – led to the unveiling of the 1MDB Development Fund scandal, uncovering massive allegations of kleptocracy by the Malaysian prime minister. The scandal also shook the global financial world, pushed the offshore finance industry into turmoil, and left numerous high-profile personalities in Hollywood, Vegas, and New York in a state of embarrassment, the Centre for Investigative Journalism states.
“I have become somewhat emblematic in the eyes of those who are deeply resentful that Najib was found guilty and convicted of this crime,” the journalist said.
“We can speculate, but I think that it’s hard to come to the conclusion other than it is all connected to this 1MDB case.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ] has condemned the Malaysian court’s decision and said it was a direct threat to press freedom and an attempt to silence investigative journalism, particularly concerning official corruption.
“Malaysia should scrap the outrageous prison sentence given to Clare Rewcastle-Brown and stop harassing the journalist over her crucial reporting on the country’s 1MDB scandal, recognised as one of the world’s biggest-ever corruption cases,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said on Friday. “The harsh ruling will deter all reporters from investigating official corruption in Malaysia and represents a clear and present danger to press freedom in the country.”
The International Federation of Journalists [IFJ] also condemned the journalist’s sentencing and called on the Malaysian authorities to immediately reverse this punitive decision.
#Malaysia: Deeply troubling news that a magistrate in Terengganu has issued a prison sentence in absentia for Clare Rewcastle Brown.https://t.co/m7hjDSeQJp@sarawak_report @RewcastleBrown pic.twitter.com/ygiB8jsZZa
— Index on Censorship (@IndexCensorship) February 7, 2024
In a statement, IFJ said: “The punitive verdict in the criminal defamation case against Clare Rewcastle-Brown is a blatant attempt by the Malaysian authorities to quash critical reportage and crucial investigative journalism. Journalists must be permitted to report without repercussions on matters in the publish interest, and this ruling signifies a severe threat to press freedom. The IFJ calls for the immediate reversal of all charges against Rewcastle-Brown and calls on the Malaysian government to cease using harassment and intimidatory tactics towards journalists and whistle-blowers.”
Rewcastle Brown said she remains determined to continue her work in journalism, advocating for the right to report on issues of public interest. She said she was hoping for support from the UK government and international organisations to contest her conviction.
The Independent has reached out to the Sarawak Report for comment.