An exclusive interview with Clare Rewcastle Brown, the journalist who exposed the 1MDB corruption scandal and brought down former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak
Clare Rewcastle Brown exposed the most infamous multibillion dollar scandal of this century, which eventually brought down former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak from power. She is a superstar among this generation of investigative journalists.
Even though she lives in the United Kingdom, the country with a pretty good record for press freedom, Clare faced multifaceted challenges after breaking wide the scandal, but she was defiant against all odds. Eventually, her relentless efforts to uphold the truth and expose the culprits prevailed.
Najib has recently been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for his involvement in the 1MDB corruption scandal.
The Business Standard talked to Clare Rewcastle Brown about her work, the challenges she went through and her insights on investigative journalism.
TBS: Tell us about your work that exposed the 1MDB corruption. How did you collect all the data? How did it all begin and end?
CRB: This was not a story about data. There is a lot of obsession for data as a reporting tool at the moment, but I think the best stories still come from old-fashioned digging for insider information and asking the right questions.
Yes, there were a lot of documents to digest from many sources, but above all, I relied on connecting the dots and using sources, including people on the inside who were willing to bring their evidence to me and expose something that was being hidden for all the wrong reasons.
TBS: You worked for the BBC and you live in London. What prompted you to dig out the scam? When did you last visit your motherland Malaysia?
CRB: I spent my early years in East Malaysia, and knew how unique and valuable the region is in terms of natural heritage. So, that was what sparked my interest and gave me an early awareness of how the booming technology of our age has enabled massive destruction of our planet at the expense of so many traditional communities and vital plant and animal habitats. This has been ignored by most decisionmakers until very recently.
However, the consequences are now endangering all of us and represent a tragic loss of biodiversity on our planet that will cause far-reaching problems. I knew that the Borneo Rainforest, which I remembered as glorious and pristine, is the oldest and most biodiverse rainforest on the planet, and was being wiped out by a handful of companies that were grabbing the timber, rolling out cash crops like oil palm and leaving the local indigenous people to struggle for survival with none of the profits.
A handful of businessmen and crony politicians were made vastly rich at the expense of this destruction and misery for everyone else. It is happening to communities and remaining areas of wildlife in so many other countries including the subcontinent, of course.
So, I decided to use my journalism background to expose the truth behind what these businessmen politicians liked to present as "modernisation, progress and development". The truth was that the driving force behind all the decision-making was a corrupt enterprise between the timber companies and politicians to loot the resources of the state.
These powermongers had been used to exercising total control across their region, and they had developed a ruthless control over the local media. Likewise, any foreign journalist who annoyed them would be ejected from Malaysia and their organisation pressured.
However, I got involved just as the internet was getting underway and I could see its power to help reach the people of Malaysia from the safe distance of the UK. I have faced plenty of disruptions and pushbacks.
However, thanks to the internet, my journalism has been able to by-pass the censors (even though my website was banned in Malaysia), and I was also able to use new media tools to research these actors online and their global activities across the world.
In the case of Sarawak, I was soon able to point out to a growing readership that many of their leading local politicians were secretly some of the richest families in the world, and were hiding their wealth, stolen from the public, in vast property empires and in bank accounts in the advanced economies.
I started to expand my research to neighbouring Sabah (the chief minister was recently charged over some 49 counts of corruption, although he has managed to get them dropped) and also, of course, to the leading politician in Malaysia, Najib, who stole billions of dollars from the 1MDB development fund.
I was in Malaysia in February just in the early days of a coup against the democratically elected government that threw out this corrupt regime in May 2018. Najib's allies have now managed to install a so-called "backdoor government" which lacks a proper majority in the parliament.
Nevertheless, they have bought over enough MPs with inducements of jobs and money to take power for now. Under these circumstances, I cannot return to Malaysia as I cannot be sure that they will not devise charges against me.
TBS: As an investigative journalist, how did you handle the pressure and the challenge after your reports exposed Najib? Was this the most challenging moment you had in your career?
CRB: After I exposed the 1MDB scandal through a series of articles from 2015 onwards, I certainly found myself under considerable pressure, although nothing like what it would have been if I had been a Malaysian living in Kuala Lumpur, where I could have been arrested and imprisoned under outrageous treason charges. Companies were hired to harass me in the UK and defame me online, and charges were brought against me for seeking to overthrow the government. The charges were then presented to the Interpol so that I could be arrested as a terrorist.
However, to its credit, the Interpol announced it would not countenance such a case against a journalist. I was hacked and hugely funded online, and social media operations were put into play to attack and discredit me. Social media works both ways, and can play into the hands of governments and the wealthy who are trying to manipulate the medium, as we have increasingly seen.
However, my message still managed to get through and when the matters I had been writing about were finally taken up by global investigators, particularly in the US, action started to be taken against the many global players who had assisted in enabling the theft of some $5 billion from 1MDB at the behest of Najib and his co-conspirators.
Just last week, Najib was found guilty of the first seven of some 42 charges related to 1MDB that were brought against him. Meanwhile, numerous banks (including and especially Goldman Sachs) have also been exposed and forced to admit culpability and in several cases of downright criminal behaviour, as well as accountancy and law firms and an army of professionals who assisted in this matter from the advanced economies – places like the US, the UK and Australia.
Perhaps the hardest period was after one of my key sources was arrested in Thailand and forced to plead guilty to trumped-up charges designed to exonerate Najib and put the blame on me for allegedly "forging documents" that had exposed the criminal thefts of billions of dollars from 1MDB. This whistle-blower, Xavier Justo, who is a Swiss national, spent 18 months in a Bangkok jail before he was finally let out and pardoned.
During that period, another crucial source narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on the streets of Paris, and many other brave sources and campaigners were rounded up, imprisoned or harassed by the Malaysian authorities.
What drew a line under this vicious pushback by the corrupt political classes in Malaysia was the 2018 election. Thanks to my articles that reached ordinary voters with real information, which was then corroborated by international authorities like the FBI. This powerful regime was then kicked out of office for the first time since independence in 1957.
It has to be noted that shortly after the Covid-19 crisis erupted, an alliance of these defeated parties has now managed to seize office once more, thanks to what has been described as a "backdoor coup" against this elected government, achieved largely by bribing defector MPs. So, the crooked political establishments are pushing back against the majority wishes of the population. Despite this, Najib has been convicted in an independent court of law.
TBS: Many countries in the world do not have press freedom as much as the United Kingdom. There are countries where press freedom is much worse than even Malaysia. What do you recommend for investigative journalists of such countries?
CRB: The route I took has proven highly effective in Malaysia. Despite growing attempts to control the new media and to intimidate anyone who engages in online criticism of powerful political forces, it remains possible for the moment to do a huge amount of criticism online from a safe distance away from the jurisdiction controlled by vengeful regimes. I could immediately see the potential of the internet to bring the truth to the population of Malaysia and the same method can bring information elsewhere.
Of course, the wealthy and powerful can attempt to pressure negative reporting by bringing lawsuits that are costly to defend, whatever the merit of the lawsuit is. Countries like the UK have libel laws that are hugely open to abuse and wealthy people can threaten reporters and seek to deter them by saying they will make any coverage prohibitively expensive, even if their litigation has no merit.
Vexatious litigation to silence criticism is a practice known as SLAPP Suits and it has been very effective. Many criminal enterprises treat these cases as an inevitable business cost to deal with problematic exposure. I have had to stand up to a number of these attempts.
What I recommend is to stand firm, check your facts and base your criticism from a jurisdiction which is at least out of the influence of powermongers, who are used to abusing the levers of state in their own countries to silence unwanted criticism and exposure. The internet is the vital tool to liberate this kind of journalism and bring it to even the remotest communities on the planet.
TBS: There is a general feeling that investigative journalism is on the decline as the traditional institutions that used to support them - media organisations - are struggling to cope with declining revenues. How can investigative journalism be kept alive under these circumstances?
CRB: This is largely because of the matters discussed above, but also owing to the effect of new media on traditional news organisations, who have lost market share and revenue to the more effective online news carriers. That has meant far less money to sustain good journalism and stand up to lawsuits.
There is another problem. The power of ownership of news media has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few global players, such as the Murdoch empire, who have their own private and business interests which they put before the public interest when it comes to potentially antagonising powerful politicians, corporations, countries and the like. This has curtailed the traditional role of the journalist (when employed by such organisations) as the champion of public interest speaking truth to power.
On the other hand, the internet has also opened the way for a small army of much smaller players to take on a replacement role. A small, focused blog like my own has proven that with careful reporting, integrity and determination, a tiny player can help bring down a powerful corrupt regime.
Democratic countries need to address these issues as a matter of urgency to make sure that there is still space and protection for honest criticism and investigative journalism to protect our societies and freedoms.
TBS: Your journey as an investigative journalist fascinates us. It inspires us. Tell us about your journey as a journalist, especially as an investigative one.
CRB: I think all journalists have curious and questioning minds, and should not content themselves with being merely propagandists or publicity agents for paying clients. Unfortunately, that is the role many journalists find themselves being asked to play in their paid employment. Also, under oppressive regimes, it is downright dangerous to rebel.
When the past government of Najib was finally thrown out in Malaysia after years of increasingly threatening crackdowns on media criticism (as he tried to fight back and cover up his many corruption scandals), many journalists expressed relief that they could finally hope to do their jobs and cover real stories and matters of public interest. A whole new atmosphere of freedom and honest journalism opened up.
I have had the good fortune to always live in a free country, and I was trained in a powerful, protected, and publicly-funded media organisation, the BBC. Our strong commitment was to public interest, and I believe that this is where every journalist should see their proper remit.
These licenced media structures are now under enormous financial and political pressure in the UK and other countries also. This means objective, honest journalism is seriously under threat not just in oppressive countries but globally, too.
This, I believe, is a serious threat to the health of the world's existing democracies. However, journalists from my generation stand by these values and want to see them taken up by a whole new wave of young media professionals.
When I looked at the situation in Malaysia, I could see that many of the grotesque abuses against public interest were succeeding primarily for this very reason. The regime had succeeded in silencing the media, and creating fear and deference amongst local journalists.
So, thanks to the internet, I decided I ought to try and make up for the lack of critical and investigative journalism in Malaysia by using my training and technique from the UK, and applying it as a rare challenging voice against the powerful actors.
I am certain that as an individual journalist, I was able to have a far greater positive impact by doing this work than by joining the crowds of journalists who focus on countries where there is greater freedom. I hope this model can provide a useful example for future journalists to find a pathway to bringing objective journalism to similar situations elsewhere.
What happens in countries like Malaysia affects millions of members of our global family, and in an interdependent world, we simply cannot afford any of us to ignore the destruction of our world's remaining natural regions. Corruption and bad governance bring unnecessary misery to the lives of billions of people across the planet, who might otherwise have benefitted from stolen public money being channelled instead into services like health, education, basic food and shelter.
Meanwhile, the proceeds of that corruption nearly always find their way into the advanced economies where they are putting dangerous criminal interests into powerful and influential positions, and are creating a corrosive influence over our own affairs. So, we all are affected, poor and wealthy communities alike, and we all equally need access to information about what is going on and who is corrupting law and order in countries across the world. Those self-same interests want to shut the media up so that they can continue to plunder their nations without exposure.