AN Australian journalist and camera operator were arrested by Malaysian authorities on Saturday for posing questions to its Prime Minister Najib Razak, redoubling concerns over the country’s recent crackdown on press freedom.
Television reporter Linton Besser and cameraman Louie Eroglu of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Four Corners’ program were investigating the various scandals surrounding Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, such as the 2006 murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu and the more recent corruption allegations involving troubled state investment fund 1MDB.
It was reported that the duo had approached Najib during a walkabout in Kuching, Sarawak, where he was canvassing for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional for the upcoming state elections.
Local police accused Besser and Eroglu of being “aggressive” in approaching Najib and breaching a security cordon.
Later that evening, they were detained under section 186 of Malaysia’s penal code for “obstructing a public officer” and their passports were seized, though they were released the next morning on police bail without being charged for an offense and their passports returned.
However, according to ‘Four Corners’ executive producer Sally Neighbour, the pair are not allowed to leave the country yet, as the Attorney-General’s Chambers mulls over whether to charge them.
— Sally Neighbour (@neighbour_s) March 13, 2016
Albert Tang, the lawyer who has been engaged by the Australian consulate to represent Besser and Eroglu, told The Malaysian Insider that the duo denied any wrongdoing.
“They were just carrying out their duties and asked the prime minister questions. They stopped when they were told to.
“They denied any accusation of obstructing anybody and there was no security line,” he said.
Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop has said that the Australian government has contacted Malaysia over the issue, particularly over how the newsmen were treated by local authorities, adding that “Australia supports freedom of speech” and will “make representations at the highest levels within the Malaysian government.”
— Sally Neighbour (@neighbour_s) March 14, 2016
Commenting on the incident, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the arrest of the ‘Four Corners’ crew “should not be seen as an obstruction to the freedom of the press.”
He said there was no restriction on local and international reporters in Malaysia as long as they “respected the regulations of the country’s journalism ethics.”
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia (FCCM) issued a statement today regarding the incident, expressing its “gravest concern at the treatment of the team, who were reportedly held for six hours by police.”
The FCCM questioned the need to arrest the duo, saying it “does not see the need, based on the current explanation of the case, to arrest the two journalists.”
“It must be reminded, the two reporters are not from Malaysia, and work according to ethics and guidelines more common in other democracies. It appears they were merely doing their utmost to gain comment from the Prime Minister, who is the subject of their proposed news production,” it added.
The Malaysian government has come under fire recently for their attempts to censor media over coverage of the 1MDB allegations, such as blocking access to online news portals.
In Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Malaysia was ranked #147 out of 180 countries, its lowest position thus far.
Additional reporting by Associated Press.