UK House of Lords Committee Hears Evidence On Terengganu’s Jail Sentence Against SR Editor

On Tuesday afternoon in the UK, just after a judge had directed that the editor of this website, Clare Rewcastle Brown, should personally attend her appeal against a two year jail sentence passed against her in absentia in Terengganu, the matter came up at a Select Committee hearing at the House of Lords in Westminster.

The Communications and Digital Committee of the House of Lords was taking oral evidence on the topic of “Lawfare against journalists: Committee explores what progress has been made on SLAPPs”.

The purpose was to consider what has been achieved so far in preventing the use of abusive law suits to silence journalists and whistle blowers, and in the course of the discussion the panel of experts giving evidence to the committee raised the issue of what they called ‘Transnational Oppression’ whereby foreign entities use legal action to harass journalists in the UK.

The ongoing litigation against Sarawak Report related to the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia was raised as an example of the problem by Susan Coughtrie, Director of the Foreign Policy Centre and co-chair of the UK Anti-Slapp Coalition:

Susan Coughtrie:  We very much see Slapps as a form of transnational oppression when they are brought here in an attempt to shut down scrutiny of issues like ones that I have mentioned of transnational corruption, and at the moment there is very little that the UK does to support journalists who are subject to that kind of threat, aside from what Fiona [O’Brien] was saying of immediate risks to life. One example is the investigative journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown who has spoken to this committee previously who was sentenced earlier this year in absentia in Malaysia in a case of criminal defamation that was brought related to the book that she had written after uncovering the 1MDB corruption scandal where money was stolen from a sovereign wealth fund in Malaysia.  She has also been sued here in the UK, she has been subject to Interpol Red Notices and it is very difficult for someone like Clare who is a freelance journalist without the support of a big media organisation to know where to go and get support.
Clare, as she previously gave evidence to this committee, has been subject to surveillance in person in the street and when she went to a police station to try to report that, as Fiona has mentioned, there were difficulties.  She was also subject to online smear campaigns and harassment, so the UK really needs to look at how it captures that information and one of the academics we have been looking at this at Lancaster University, Dr Andrew Chubb, has proposed a transnational protection office which I can send the committee information about, but that would be a good focal point for gathering that kind of information and also a source of support for those who are victims of those kinds of attack.”

This issue caught the interest of the former Director General of the BBC, now Lord Tony Hall, who intervened to express concern of journalists working without the backing of a large organisation such as the one he used to head:

Lord Tony Hall: Thank you we would like to hear more about that.
Just on that point of that sort of solo freelance journalist, so this sort of office might help, are there other forms of support for someone like that who must feel cut off from all the things that large organisations have?

Fiona O’Brien, the Director of the international NGO Reporters Without Borders, which has recently downgraded Malaysia by 37 points in its widely referenced Media Freedom Index, responded with today’s update on the Terengganu criminal defamation case against Rewcastle Brown.

Fiona O’Brien: …. I think it is particularly difficult for freelancers. Picking up on Clare Rewcastle Brown, I was just on the phone to her before this session because today a court in Malaysia has decided that despite the fact she’s been sentenced to 2 years she’s to turn up in court to have the next appeal hearing.  It’s one of those farcical cases and she .. hasn’t been able to get any help from the FCDO and she’s really struggling and I think it’s a good example of where the systems aren’t backing up where they need to.

The Committee is due to continue to examine how upcoming legislation and systems can be improved to support journalists, who find themselves targets of aggressive legal action and other forms of attack, in the course of reporting on corrupt practices both in Britain and abroad.

Rewcastle Brown is due to speak at a symposium at the University of Lancaster at the end of the month where the issues of Transnational Oppression will be examined. Her case is currently being monitored by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

She has issued a statement today:

“My lawyer has pointed to no less than five basic violations of the Criminal Procedure Code of Malaysia that led to this judgment that I committed a crime by writing the words “the wife of the Sultan’.
 Firstly, prosecutors failed to charge me before proceeding with a trial in my absence and without notifying me, rendering me unable to make a plea or enter a defence.
These prosecutors made no effort to extradite me either, which plainly they could never do since my action was not a crime in most places in the world, including Britain which is where I wrote and published the book.
 However, instead of tossing out this fatally flawed jail sentence against me, the local high court’s response has been to order me to present myself in Terengganu, probably with a view of throwing out my appeal although the trial procedures leading to the conviction are all fatally flawed, illegal and therefore null. All of which, last time I heard, is not how the law should operate.
 My lawyers will be ready to submit on all these points at the hearing of the next case management. If the judge decides to dismiss my appeal on ground of my non-appearance (which in law i am entitled to set aside the illegal order ex-debito justitiae), I have already instructed my lawyers to file necessary leave application to the Court of Appeal (since the matter originates from a magistrate hence the law in Malaysia requires leave from the Court of Appeal to be obtained on question/s of law before I am allowed to appeal to Court of Appeal). it is a damning illustration of the pressures still facing journalists and writers in Malaysia, where freedoms have slid backwards despite two successive elections that mandated reform and action against the abuse of power and office.”

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