Last week, Malaysia’s former prime minister, Najib Razak, went on trial in one of the biggest corruption scandals the world has seen. The case involves the state development fund: 1Malaysia Development Berhad – known in the media as 1MDB. It lost billions of dollars – almost $700m of which is alleged to have ended up in Najib’s own bank account.
The Malaysian media are all over the story, but it was not always that way. The trial could not have happened without the collaborative work of journalists both inside and outside the country.
“The media in Malaysia were prevented from reporting on it. And laws were in fact used to crack down on the media that reported or wanted to report on 1MDB,” says assistant professor Gayathry S. Venkiteswaran of the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
Under Najib’s government, there were red lines that reporters and the news outlets they worked for feared to cross. “We were under a lot of pressure,” explains Ho Kay Tat, whose paper, The Edge, was shut down while investigating 1MDB. “You are writing a big expose on a big financial scandal in a government-owned company, a company that was started by the prime minister at that time, Najib, so it was unprecedented.”
And if not for a British journalist running a website out of London, one business newspaper in Kuala Lumpur and a secret meeting that took place in Singapore, Malaysians might not have seen this trial play out in the media.
In an ironic twist however, Najib has, over the past year, launched a fully fledged campaign to try and rebrand himself, as well as paint his trial as a politicised vendetta, all on social media. But the Malaysian media are not falling for it, not even those who were once part of the mainstream. They say they have learnt their lesson.
“I left Utusan in November last year and then we set up a news portal where I believe in this freedom the freedom of speech, the freedom of expressions and so on. It’s a milestone to the Malaysian journalism,” says Zaini Hassan, former deputy assistant editor, Utusan Malaysia (1989-2018) and editorial advisor, bebasnews.my.
Six years ago, Malaysian media broke the story of the 1MDB scandal. Najib Razak pushed back, accusing them of conducting a trial by media. Now, as he stands trial for one of the world’s biggest cases of kleptocracy, the media Najib tried to silence are out in force. They, and the law, have caught up with him.