Malaysia on Tuesday deported two Australian journalists who were arrested over the weekend for allegedly crossing a security line to try to interview Prime Minister Najib Razak over ongoing financial scandals.
The government expelled Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reporter Linton Besser and camera operator Louie Eroglu, after authorities decided not to press charges against the pair for getting too close to Najib while he visited a mosque in Sarawak state on Saturday, officials said.
The move followed criticism over their arrest from press advocacy groups, as well as concern expressed by Australia’s foreign ministry about the case amid growing restrictions on press freedom in Malaysia.
“On Tuesday, police had received instructions from the DPP that no prosecution was made against them – instead they have been ordered to leave the country,” Dev Kumar, senior assistant commissioner for Sarawak’s Criminal Investigation Department, said in a statement released to media.
“They will be deported under Section 18(3)(h) of the Immigration Act 1959/63.”
Besser and Eroglu boarded a flight to Singapore on Tuesday, but they would only be allowed to re-enter Malaysia as tourists, Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed warned.
“If they have been deported, that means they have done something wrong. When they come back, we will see then,” he told reporters. “If they come back as tourists, then there’s no problem, but there will be a problem if they come back and break any laws.”
‘What is wrong with asking the question?’
Albert Tang, a Malaysian lawyer representing the Australian journalists, told BenarNews that while the government had the right to file charges for "obstructing state officials" - referring to official allegations that his clients had breached a security line - such action would have been the right approach.
The government should not have detained and interrogated them because all they wanted to do was question Najib about scandals linked with the indebted state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, the lawyer added.
"What is wrong in asking questions? I see many journalists do that every time, but they were not arrested, interrogated and charged in court," he said.
During a visit to Fiji on Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia was raising the case of the two ABC journalists at the highest levels within the Malaysian government, the Associated Press reported.
“I’m always concerned where there are instances of a crackdown on freedom of speech, in democracies particularly, and I’m also concerned about the freedom that journalists have to carry out their work in places around the world,” AP quoted Bishop as saying.
On Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized Malaysia over its “knee-jerk reaction” in the case of Besser and Eroglu.
Their six-hour detention demonstrated “the incredible lengths that the authorities are prepared to go to protect Prime Minister Najib from any sort of hard questions about his actions,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division.
“It’s shameful that the Malaysia government is apparently willing to shred the country’s already diminished reputation as a rights-respecting democracy to shield one man from serious allegations of malfeasance,” he added.