The Accidental Whistleblower – TIME

The Accidental Whistleblower: How a Retired London Journalist Uncovered Massive Corruption Half a World Away

A week before she was to give a keynote address at an anti-fraud conference in Singapore, Clare Rewcastle Brown received an anonymous email. “Dear Madam, I want to thank you for exposing all the corruption and wrongdoing in Malaysia,” it read.

“I am writing to you urgently with regards to your upcoming trip to Singapore,” it continued. “The [Malaysian] Special Branch knows that you are coming and they have arranged with their Singapore counterparts to arrest you on arrival.”

Rewcastle Brown is accustomed to this sort of thing, and she decided to stay in London, where she lives with her family, and deliver her Nov. 21 remarks over streaming video. (Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers told TIME in a statement that “there are no special arrangements between Singapore and Malaysia in relation to the extradition of any particular individual.”)

She gave her speech from her dining room, which also functions as her newsroom. It is here that she runs Sarawak Report, a nearly seven-year-old investigative news website. Sixteen months earlier, in July 2015, she had published a bombshell of a report: the personal bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, she alleged, held nearly $700 million tied to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

“I want to say first how sorry I am not to be able to join you in Singapore as planned,” Rewcastle Brown, 57, told the crowd nearly 13,000 km away. Her audience, comprising mostly executives and auditors, was rapt. “The loss is entirely mine as it was a huge opportunity for me to meet with so many people of expertise in financial fraud — where I have been stumbling along as a jobbing journalist.”

“So, where do I fit as a mere reporter into this juggernaut of a story?” she asked the crowd. “You can hardly expect me not to take advantage of this platform you have kindly provided me with, to put in a plea for the vital role of journalism and free media in exposing corruption that threatens to undermine all our democratic systems.”

Rewcastle Brown’s British penchant for understatement is deceptive. The 1MDB controversy uncovered by this “mere reporter” is the biggest corruption scandal in recent memory to involve a head of government, in terms of both the sum of money involved and the magnitude of the sensational news story it has become. Rewcastle Brown is, as Abraham Lincoln apocryphally said of the anti-slavery author Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” Along with the Wall Street Journal, which has also reported the story thoroughly, Sarawak Report has been instrumental in both informing the Malaysian public and bringing the story into the global consciousness.

There are eight governments around the world concurrently investigating 1MDB; in July, U.S. federal prosecutors announced what they described as the “largest single action” against kleptocracy in U.S. history: they were seizing more than $1 billion in assets apparently obtained with illicit 1MDB funds. The assets include a $30-million penthouse atop Manhattan’s Time Warner Center and art by Monet and Picasso. Rewcastle Brown was first tipped off about 1MDB in December 2013 when she learned that Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, had bankrolled The Wolf of Wall Street. In its complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice said the cash used to fund the film — tens of millions of dollars — was “directly traceable” to 1MDB. Aziz is specifically named by the U.S. Department of Justice; Najib is not, but several mentions of a “Malaysian Official 1” refer to him, government minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan told the BBC. The Prime Minister has denied all allegations of wrongdoing — the Saudi government donated the $700 million, say Malaysian officials.

In July 2015, Sarawak Report became the first news website officially blocked in Malaysia by state censors. Anywhere from three to six times a week, it publishes piecemeal updates to its investigations. The site receives around “a couple million” visitors each year, according to the programmer Rewcastle Brown hired in 2010 to handle the tech side of things. One major story can bring in more than a hundred thousand hits in its first few hours online — most of them from Malaysia, where seven in 10 people are now online, and where traditional forms of media are controlled by the government. What began in 2010 as a blog about an environmental crisis in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is now the most comprehensive portrait of a diseased body-politic and its attendant scandals.

The Accidental Whistleblower: How a Retired London Journalist Uncovered Massive Corruption Half a World Away
Nash Jenkins
Jan 7th 2017 – time.com


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