Australia raises case of detained newsmen with Malaysia

Australian Broadcasting Corp. television reporter Linton Besser and camera operator Louie Eroglu were arrested in the city of Kuching

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Australia is concerned about the detention of two Australian journalists who attempted to interview the Malaysian prime minister over corruption allegations, the foreign minister said Monday.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. television reporter Linton Besser and camera operator Louie Eroglu were arrested in the city of Kuching on Saturday after approaching Prime Minister Najib Razak on the street.

They were detained by Malaysian police for six hours and told to remain in Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, while authorities decided whether they should be charged, ABC said.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested the detention was part of a Malaysian crackdown on press freedom and said Australia was raising their case at the “highest levels within the Malaysian government.”

“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,” Bishop told reporters during a visit to Fiji.

Sarawak police said the pair were detained after they “crossed the security line and aggressively tried to approach” Najib while he was visiting a mosque.

The police said in a statement that the two defied police instructions not to cross the line.

They were released Sunday morning, but there is an investigation into whether they obstructing a public servant from discharging his duties, the statement said. Malaysia’s opposition spokesman Fahmi Fadzil told ABC a conviction could result in two years in prison.

ABC denied that Besser and Eroglu had crossed a security line and aggressively tried to approach the prime minister.
They stopped filming and left the event when they were asked to, the state-owned broadcaster said.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi defended the police response, saying the two Australians should have respected Malaysia’s regulations.

Ahmad Zahid told local media on Sunday that the incident was not an obstruction of press freedom.

Najib is engulfed in a scandal over $681 million deposited into his bank accounts in early 2013. Critics accuse him of corruption and say the money came from an indebted state investment fund which he founded in 2009.

In January, Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali decided not to prosecute the prime minister, saying the money was a “personal donation” from the Saudi royal family.

Besser and Eroglu, on assignment for an investigative current affairs program, had asked Najib as he entered a mosque why the money had been deposited into his accounts, the ABC reported.

Najib did not respond and his security detail surrounded the two and questioned them. They were allowed to leave but were detained again as they returned to their hotel, the ABC said.

They were questioned in a police station for six hours and their passports were taken.

Their passports were returned but they were told they must remain in Kuching while the attorney-general’s office decided whether they should be charged.

That decision is expected in the next several days.

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