Malaysia’s new Twitter police target critics of Prime Minister Najib
(From Reuters|The Star)
Digitally savvy Malaysian police have been taking to social media to issue warnings to critics of scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak in an unusual online campaign that critics say is unlikely to work.
Najib is facing the biggest political crisis in his seven-year premiership over a multi-billion dollar scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and over deposits of $681 million in his private bank account.
Najib, chairman of the 1MDB advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and says he did not take any money for personal gain.
Attorney General Apandi Ali last week closed investigations of Najib and said the $681 million was a donation from a Saudi Arabian benefactor and most of it had been returned.
But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told the New York Times on Thursday that although he accepted the Attorney-General’s opinion that there had been no wrongdoing, he did not think the money had come from the Saudi government or that it was a political donation.
Jubeir said he believed it came from a private Saudi citizen and that the funds went to an investment in Malaysia.
Amid such conflicting reports, Malaysians are naturally taking to social media to voice their exasperation.
A caricature of Najib with a clown face and the words “in a country full of corruption, we are all seditious”, was widely shared recently.
The police responded within hours, with an online warning to the artist who drew it, Fahmi Reza, telling him they were watching his Twitter account and he should use it “prudently and in line with the law”, he said.
Fahmi responded to their warning by reposting the clown and with a new sketch of the police with hashtag #BigBrotherIsWatchingYou.
No further action was taken against him while other artists expressed solidarity by sharing the clown sketch with the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut, or “we are all seditious” in Malay.
“The ruling elite of this country has always been intolerant to dissent. They’re always afraid of losing their throne,” Fahmi said. “But the people have changed. The culture of protest and resistance is growing stronger.”
Fahmi was not the first person to be warned over social media comment as the police for the first time make use of Twitter to identify people who are being watched and warn them about repercussions.
“Action will be taken against individuals who spread false information,” is a typical warning to appear on Twitter, often accompanied by the Twitter handle of the person it is being directed at.
Responding to criticism of the attorney general’s decision to drop the investigations of Najib, police told another Twitter user: “Investigations will be carried out on the posts made by the owner of this Twitter account”.
A police spokeswoman confirmed that the Twitter account issuing the warnings was an official Malaysian cyber unit account but she declined to comment on specific warnings, such as the one issued to Fahmi.
She referred queries to the head of the police cyber unit but he declined to make any immediate comment. The home, or interior ministry which is in charge of the unit, did not respond to a request for comment.
Najib’s Facebook page has over the months been flooded with criticism and calls on him to resign. He has taken steps that critics say are aimed at stemming opposition.
He sacked a deputy prime minister who was critical of him, replaced a former attorney-general and authorities have suspended some media and blocked websites.
Asked to comment on criticism of suppression of dissent, Minister of Communications Salleh Said Keruak said police and the communications regulator were enforcing the law.
“It is not a crackdown. We are just doing the ordinary enforcement,” he said, adding that authorities had taken action in nearly 3,000 cases last year under a telecommunications and multimedia act.
A former cabinet minister, Rafidah Aziz, said in a Facebook post on Monday that cracking down online would not work.
“It is so very naive to think that shutting down blogs and intervention in social media will actually stop people from talking,” she said.
Meanwhile, adding fuel to the fire came a comment from Saudi Foreign Minister who said the funds that went to Najib’s personal account was an investment and not a political donation.
“It is [from] a private Saudi citizen, I believe, and the funds went to an investment in Malaysia,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.
The paper also quoted one member of the royal family and one associate of the family, speaking on the condition of anonymity, who confirmed it was not a donation.
“The association questioned the reported sum but said the funds were part of a business deal,” the paper reported.
Najib, on his part, says it is time to move on from issues and controversies.