Crime International

Did Australia really ban reporting on Malaysian corruption?

Recently we discovered that WikiLeaks exposed an Australian court orderbanning the media from reporting news on a multi-million dollar international corruption case. Guess who’s name popped up? Najib, Pak Lah and Dr. M – plus a few other top Malaysian officials.

list of malaysians corruption banknote australia wikileaks

Malaysian names in red box. Screenshot from WikiLeaks

But this is an OLD case! WikiLeaks reported it 1 year ago, on 29 July! And in case you didn’t hear about it, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. To bring you up to speed:

Two Aussie companies that invented polymer bank notes (y’know, the plasticky ones) had allegedly BRIBED Malaysian officials (and officials from a few other countries) to sign lucrative contracts with them to use these polymer bank notes in their own countries. (We’ll talk more about the case later in the article.)

Anyway, we didn’t hear people talking about it much, even last year. How come? If Australia is keeping quiet about a corruption case involving top Malaysians, isn’t it a big deal? Why’s Australia doing this? We think it’s time to pay this case a revisit! Especially now coz not long ago, Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth (the judge who first issued the order) lifted the ban.

 

First of all, can WikiLeaks be trusted?

Or is this another sensational story by people who want more clicks?

julian assange vs mark zuckerberg

OMG, so true! Image from Meme Center

Let’s look at their background: WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 in Iceland by Julian Assange an Australian Internet activist, alongside a group of journalists, political dissidents and hackers. Since then, it claims to have toppled governments and is targeted by libel lawyers around the world.

Their credibility had been questioned right from the start. Though they claim to verify every document that gets published, an interview with Wired proved that WikiLeaks has fake content. According to Wired, a whistleblower once submitted fake documents to them as a test. The documents were published, although they were flagged as potential fakes. So we guess that means you can’t trust EVERYTHING they publish as 100% truth.

But we checked the Australian media gag order story against other sources, which we’ll be talking about as we go along. We also contacted Justice Hollingworth’s associates for a statement, but they have not responded to our email.

 

So what made the Aussie gomen censor the media!?

woman biting testing the polymer banknote

Money…? Edible money…? Image from thestar.com Canada… not The Star Malaysia

Australia always ranks highly in press freedom year after year. In Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Australia scored 25th place. That’s higher than the US, the UK, and France. Malaysia is at 147th place, but hey, at least Singapore scored worse than us! They’re at 153rd place, so soak it up guys, maybe this is the only chance we’ll ever get at beating Singapore.

But if such a highly-ranked free-press country like Australia can ban this new? What chance does the rest of the world have? What sparked such a serious court order in the first place? Well, back to the corruption story – the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) which is sorta like the Oz version of our Bank Negara, were the first bank to use polymer banknotes. Yep, those plastic ones we have today in RM1 and RM5:

bank negara rm1 rm5 polymer notes currency

Ohh, so that’s where they came from! Image from The Star

So RBA’s subsidiary companies – Securency International and Note Printing Australia – allegedly bribed Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese officials to sign lucrative contracts to supply these banknotes to their countries.

7 senior executives from the Oz bank’s companies were secretly charged on 19 June, and then the court ordered the gag after the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stepped in – the Aussies were worried it would risk national security and damage international relations.

 

How did the Australian media react?

Strangely, the from the Australian media were almost silent. *crickets chirping*.

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But we said almost because they did try to report what they can. Since they would face legal action for reporting the details, the media just acknowledged there was “a leak” without reporting WHAT it was.

the age coverage on wikileaks screenshot

This report is as bold as it gets. Screenshot of The Age’s article

What made the gag order worse was that even social media users could be charged for sharing the story!

Overseas media on the other hand started making noise. The Guardian made their sentiments clear that they didn’t believe in muzzling the media. Human Rights Watch stated that diplomatic embarrassment is no excuse for withholding information.

And in a weird role reversal, the 147th-place-in press-freedom Malaysian media covered it – The Star, The Malaysian Insider (who’ve been reporting it since the start of investigations in 2010), and Free Malaysia Today for example, all covered it. Interestingly, Malaysiakini gave a platform for an Australian journalist’s article, coz the court order only said not within Australia, but didn’t forbid Aussies from going to outside media.

In fact recently, Malaysian media has started revisiting the case. TMI, FMT and The Malay Mail Online reported that Malaysia is not cooperating with Australia, though they’ve been repeatedly requesting for information on the alleged corruption case.

 

Luckily the ban has been lifted! YAY!

judge judy justice hollingworth australia corruption

This is not Justice Hollingworth. This is Judge Judy

But the Aussie media can’t begin reporting yet! Booo! Justice Hollingworth lifted the ban on 19 June 2015 thanks to WikiLeaks’ exposé, but temporarily stayed it until the next month. She also warned that it should not be seen as gag orders would be routinely lifted if deliberately breached.

Although now it’s already past 19 July, we don’t really see the Australian media reporting much on the case. Why? The only current (meaning 2015) articles we found that reported specifically about the Malaysian officials’ involvement in the alleged corruption are from Sydney Morning Herald. Here’s the link to one of the articles.

In their second article, SMH reported Najib denying any involvement and…yep, you guessed it…that he’s planning to SUE The Age and SMH (both owned by Fairfax Media). Until today we have not heard that he’s sent them the lawsuit letter so maybe he changed his mind or something.

We don’t know if the other papers are still afraid of being prosecuted, but good on The Age and SMH for covering the news. In case we did miss any other Australian newspapers covering this, please let us know 🙂 Meanwhile, we also emailed Justice Hollingworth for an official statement. Her associate sent us a very, very long document of the recent reasons why Justice Hollingworth made the decision. At the end of it however, there was good news:

“Accordingly, I propose to revoke those parts of the DFAT order which prevent the publication of the identities of the named persons.” – Justice Hollingworth

 

But long live freedom of speech!

icarly talking too much hand flapping gif

Australia may not stay in a high spot on the Press Freedom Index if this kind of media stifling continues. In fact, it seems like they gradually going down this road by consistently turning blind eye press freedom issues as The Australian reported. Late last year, the Government applied laws that could have journalists jailed for up to 10 years for reporting on ASIO (intelligence body) secrets.

And it’s not just threatening to silence the voice of the media but social media users as well. ABC reported that before 2012, the Australian Public Service Commission’s social media guidelines were different to what it is now – more so for employees of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet… they’re encouraged to tattle on colleagues who say stuff that’s “critical or highly critical of the Department, Minister or the PM”.

This is a scary phenomenon that even Australian media can be threatened with prosecution. What about the rest of the world? What happens to us if they take away our voice?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

 

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