When Your Prime Minister Has A Thing For Suing His Critics
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has an image to protect. Over the past two years, we've seen him and the First Lady serving lawyer letters to those who published scathing reports that could be deemed as slander, libel, or defamatory to their character.
The latest one that has caught worldwide attention involves US daily and Pulitzer Prize winner, The Wall Street Journal.
One day after WSJ published a report implicating Najib in the 1MDB scandal, Najib's political secretary Mr Muhammad Khairun Aseh said they would be taking legal action against WSJ
In a 3 July 2015 article, The Wall Street Journal quoted an “unnamed investigator” with claims that Najib received US$700mil (RM2.63 billion) of 1MDB funds in his personal bank account before the 13th General Election. Najib denied the reports, calling the accusations a political sabotage engineered by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to remove him from Putrajaya.
Muhammad Khairun Aseh called the report “criminal defamation”. “The report was done with bad intention and unsubstantiated and based on poor and dubious sources. We will take legal action,” he said to Sinar Harian.
On 8 July, Najib's legal firm, Hafarizam Wan & Aisha Mubarak sent WSJ a letter with a two-week deadline to confirm if they were accusing him of misappropriating the USD700 million from 1MDB funds
In the letter to WSJ, the lawyers asked WSJ to clarify if it is accusing the Prime Minister of misappropriating US$700 million (RM2.6 billion) before he decides on whether to take legal action. Possible legal actions include suing for defamation and looking into whether WSJ, and any conspirators, violated statutes in Malaysia.
News agencies in Malaysia are very familiar with letters like this from the PM. Three days before the controversial WSJ report, financial daily The Edge received a show cause letter from the Home Ministry over their 1MDB articles.
“We are accused of publishing articles on 1 Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) that have created confusion and doubts about the Government and our financial institutions. We are also accused of relying on an Internet portal for our articles.nst.com.my
The ministry gave them seven days to provide a written explanation on why actions should not be taken against The Edge Malaysia and The Edge Financial Daily under the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984. However, the letter did not specify which articles were factually wrong. The Edge said they had published over 300 articles on 1MDB, both sourced and original reporting, in the past six months.
Najib made history in May 2014 by becoming Malaysia's first Prime Minister to sue a media organisation. On the receiving end of the defamation suit was Malaysiakini.
Najib and Umno filed the suit against Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd, editor-in-chief Steven Gan, and chief editor Fathi Aris Omar over two articles that were a compilation of readers comments. In the "Yoursay" articles published on 14 May 2014, readers criticised Najib and Umno regarding the Terengganu political crisis.
The defamation suit came into full force after Malaysiakini refused to kowtow to a legal notice issued by Najib’s lawyer demanding an unconditional apology within 48 hours and a retraction of the alleged defamatory articles.
As a result of the two articles, Najib and Umno claimed that their reputation were severely tarnished. They are now seeking aggravated, excessive, general and special damages, interests and an injunction to restrain the defendants or their assistants from publishing the articles. They also want a written apology from the defendants to be published in the newspapers, and costs.
The Prime Minister has gone after news portals big and small. On 26 February 2015, he sued Harakah Daily over a report linking his stepson to 1MDB.
The 12 February 2015 report written by managing editor Dr Rosli Yaakub titled "Dana 1MDB biayai syarikat filem Riza Aziz?" (1MDB funding Riza Aziz's production company?) is a commentary based on The New York Times article about the wealth of Low Taek Jho and his relationship with Riza Aziz, the son of Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor from her earlier marriage.
Najib said the move to sue Harakahdaily is to defend himself and his family, "What was reported in Harakah was defamatory and completely untrue. They did not show evidence… Because they have defamed (my family), I have to sue them or demand they retract what they said.”
Dr Rosli Yaakub is unfazed by Najib’s lawyers, "I am proud that the prime minister wants to sue someone as small as me. I am proud that someone as big as the prime minister will sue me. He's afraid of even a small person like me," he said.
Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor has also joined hands with her husband in serving defamation suits to news portal. On 18 March 2015, the couple jointly sued Media Rakyat portal owner Chan Chee Kong for streaming a speech by Rafizi Ramli condemning rising fuel prices.
The speech was made at a forum in Bandar Tun Razak on 22 November 2014 during which Rafizi Ramli stated that the rising fuel prices would allow Rosmah to buy more diamond rings. Media Rakyat recorded the video titled "Kenapa kita pertahan subsidi minyak" (Why we defend petrol subsidies) and published it on YouTube, Media Rakyat, and Facebook.
Najib and Rosmah are demanding damages deemed fit by the court and a public apology to be published in newspapers and magazines. They have also demanded that Chan remove the video from the online platforms.
Needless to say, PKR Vice-President Rafizi Ramli was also sued over that diamond ring comment. He joins Taiping MP Nga Kor Ming and Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua in a string of opposition politicians who were sued by the PM.
Human rights groups call this an attack on free speech in Malaysia. Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders said Najib, as a political leader, should learn to accept public criticisms.
Aliran views the libel suit as “tantamount to instilling fear in other alternative media and their concerned readers.” Amnesty International condemned the suit as another attack on the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia.
Benjamin Ismaïl of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk said the legal action has further undermined the state of free speech in the country. “This libel action (against Malaysiakini) is disastrous for freedom of information in Malaysia because it means that any news outlet can be sued whenever it allow its readers to express their views.”
Human Rights Watch said government officials in Malaysia have long resorted to private lawsuits and draconian state laws to restrict freedom of expression and the media. "Najib should recognise that being a political leader means being tough enough to take public criticism from voters and the media,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said. “(His) heavy-handed efforts to compel a critical website to toe the line displays a fundamental disregard for press freedom.”
In Najib's defense, none of this reoccurring legal action is an attempt to crackdown on media nor to silence critical voices. "There is a difference between legitimate criticism and defamation," he said of online news portals overstepping the line.
"I want to be very clear. This does not indicate any wider agenda. It is not part of any (media) crackdown. It is not an attempt to silence critical voices," Najib had said at the National Press Club award ceremony in Kuala Lumpur days after he served the legal notice to Malaysiakini.
When The Diplomat criticised Najib's Malaysiakini defamation suit as a threat to the nation's free speech, they received a statement from the PM's office highlighting Najib's commitment to a free online media:
“Malaysia has a free and open online media. A cursory glance at the online media shows its independence – news portals frequently criticise both the Prime Minister and the Government, and engage in robust political debate.
“The Prime Minister has frequently stated his commitment to protect the freedom of Malaysia’s online media. The defamation case does not undermine this commitment.”
Assuming truth in those statements, the only reason left in the PM's penchant for suing his detractors is that it must be his way of asserting his credibility, integrity, and safeguarding the nation's image in the face of rising criticisms
It's not like Najib is aware that the nation's freedom of speech and press freedom is further hacked away with every defamation suit he serves. Nor does it matter that the world might soon think that the Malaysian Prime Minister is not very good at handling criticisms...
At times when negative reports outnumber positive ones, what else can Najib do to defend his good name but to sue his critics and force an apology out of them?
Because at the end of the day, engaging in public debates, counter arguments, or something as crazy as declaring assets can only do so much to establish your credibility, integrity, and image.
This story is the personal opinion of the writer. Submit a story by emailing us at [email protected]
Meanwhile, last year: