In the weeks leading up to 18 September 2018, independent bookshops across the English-speaking world received letters from a London-based law firm warning them against stocking a book which was due to be published. Why? Because that book was Billion Dollar Whale and its subject matter was the 1MDB scandal.
On 15 May 2019 Global Witness hosted an event with the book’s co-author Bradley Hope, along with journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown who was key in breaking the 1MDB story, and Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders, to discuss this fascinating scandal and the broader issue of press censorship which the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication raise.
The 1MDB scandal – a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal involving money allegedly embezzled from a Malaysian government-owned company called 1MDB – is remarkable in its own right. As Bradley Hope noted at our event, one of the pitfalls of investigating corruption is that ‘most corruption stories are actually not that interesting,’ but the 1MDB story of mega-yachts, luxury properties and multi-million-dollar gambling trips is a plot worthy of a Hollywood film. In Hope’s opinion, it was ‘one of the world’s greatest spending sprees’, and it’s hard not to see why. He told of how one of the scandal’s main protagonists, young Malaysian businessman Jho Low, would reportedly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single visit to a nightclub, shouting ‘Malaysia in the house!,’ seemingly unfazed by the risk of questions being asked about where this money was coming from.
But more than the scandalous details of apparently embezzled billions used to fund lavish lifestyles, Hope remarked that this case ‘reveals how the world really works.’ It shows how major financial players help to move enormous amounts of money around the world with little accountability for their actions. As he noted, ‘if you try to transfer $10,000, you’re going to be asked all kinds of questions, but if it’s billions nobody asks any questions.’ Clare Rewcastle Brown added that the reason the alleged conspirators were so blatant in their actions – to the point where their flagrant splurging alerted the attention of the authorities – was that ‘the banks were prepared to assist them in transferring these huge sums of money.’
It also reveals the lengths that wealthy individuals will go to in order to prevent investigative journalists from asking too many awkward questions. Brown recalled the time when she began reporting on the funding behind the Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street, which the son-in-law of then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had partly financed. Instead of receiving answers to the questions she raised, her article was greeted with ‘a barrage of replies in the form of legal letters.’ The daunting legal costs involved in defending one of her later articles put many publications off from touching the story. A massive PR effort was then launched – presumably by an expensive PR firm hired by one of the subjects of her articles – to ‘destroy [her] and [her] reputation.’
Rebecca Vincent commented that such a story was unfortunately ‘far too typical’. She told of how misuse of defamation law and other legal threats are increasingly being used to silence journalists, with often the mere threat of legal action being enough to deter them from publishing their findings. Unfortunately, the use of legal threats is just the tip of the iceberg. Vincent remarked that ‘it has never been a more deadly time to be a journalist,’ with 80 cases of journalists having been murdered in 2018, and at the time of writing 14 cases so far in 2019.
The case of Billion Dollar Whale demonstrates how efforts to prevent corruption allegations from seeing the light of day have extended beyond threats to journalists to unprecedented action against distributors and vendors. The book is so far unavailable to buy in the UK because of the reluctance of publishers to take it on in the face of potential legal action, with almost every bookshop also erring on the side of caution and declining to stock it. Hopefully in the near future the book will appear on UK shelves, but in the meantime you can read more about the fascinating story of the 1MDB scandal in our report The Real Wolves of Wall Street.