NEWS

'Tampered' emails narrative to shield 1MDB?

Nigel Aw

Published
Modified 26 Jun 2015, 6:33 am

The tone of the news - both in the mainstream and online media are similar - PetroSaudi International's (PSI) leaked email communications with 1MDB, which were used to allege financial misappropriation against the latter, were tampered with, and therefore cannot be believed.

This "tampered information" narrative, which became 'universal truth' in less than 24 hours, was a coup of sorts for 1MDB which had constantly been on the defensive, fending off claims of wrongdoings.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had also used this as a basis to threaten action against media that have been critical of 1MDB, based on the leaked information.

But interestingly, the "tampered information" narrative did not come from the authorities.

It was sourced from UK-based cyber security firm Protection Group International (PGI), which was hired by PSI to investigate the leaks.

So how did the evaluation of a private firm, paid by an interested party, suddenly become the authoritative voice in determining the credibility of the leaked information?

It began with New Straits Times ' (NST) front page report about the arrest of former PSI staff Xavier Andre Justo in Thailand, who is alleged to have stolen the information and passed them to whistleblower site Sarawak Report .

But the key part of the Umno-linked newspaper's report is its quote of an unnamed PGI expert about the data obtained by Justo.

"Simply put, it is incomplete data, creatively selected and edited to fit a desired narrative," said the expert.

But strangely, the expert went on to comment on the political and public relations aspects of the case in the carefully crafted statement.

"This case is an almost textbook match to that profile. PetroSaudi, like many companies, individuals or even governments that we have seen before them, and no doubt will continue to see after them, will suffer unfair scrutiny caused by a misinformed online onslaught.

"In this case, what started out as a simple story of personal gain by a former employee, became a story of politically-motivated allegations through the use of irresponsible online blogs," said the expert.

'Setting the stage for Zahid'

Hours after the report by NST , 1MDB too issued a statement, pushing the narrative that the leaked information was tampered with.

By then, the media had picked up on either the NST report or 1MDB's statement, peddling the "tampered information" angle to the general public.

This set the stage for Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who arrived in Putrajaya in the evening for an event.

When the press conference started, Zahid, who normally prefers not to weigh in on 1MDB-related issues unless quizzed by journalists, surprised the media when he revealed that he had a prepared statement on the PetroSaudi matter.

He even took the liberty to repeat the contents of the statement verbally for the benefit of the broadcast media before distributing them, without journalists having to ask.

"The Home Ministry was informed that Xavier Andrea Justo ( photo ) was the individual responsible for channeling inaccurate information to the political blog Sarawak Report which have triggered baseless accusations against 1MDB.

" Sarawak Report 's blog became a source of false information that was reported openly by the magazine The Edge and other media," read the statement.

Sarawak Report editor-in-chief Clare Rewcastle Brown ( photo ) concurred that the circumstances of the events yesterday, that culminated with a threat by the minister, were suspicious.

"You can see that PetroSaudi and the Malaysians (authorities) were working in cahoots on it, to the extent of bringing in a tame newspaper the NST , with an advance interview with the relatively unknown company hired by PSI in the UK, to do their 'investigation' work.  

"Presumably, they think if they make enough noise and parade a 'jailed' Westerner around enough, then enough Malaysians will be convinced by all their denials that there have not been any millions lost from 1MDB," she told Malaysiakini when contacted.

Rewcastle added that in the run up to Justo's arrest, her whistleblower site also came under cyber attacks, thus delaying the portal's response.

Drowning out the money trail

The "tampered information" narrative, which was aggressively pushed to absolve 1MDB, was never elaborated on whether it was a case of actual content altering, if any, or a case of digital modification which would have no bearing on its content.

Rewcastle pointed out that to date, there had been no outright denial that 1MDB's money paid to PetroSaudi went to Good Star Limited, controlled by Malaysian billionaire Jho Low ( photo ) but mere insistence that the claim was based on tampered evidence.

"Is it not significant that with all the talk of tampered emails the PSI spokesmen have not produced one substantive point of evidence to show a distortion of the facts?

"So, before the emails were 'tampered' with, what story did they indicate? Because this narrative, if it were different, would conflict with all the things we separately know," she said.

PGI is based in the UK but has its primary owner in the Middle East.

It is 51 percent owned by Oman-based MB Holding Company LLC through its subsidiary United Engineering Services LLC, according to its financial report ending September 2014.

Among its board members include former military men and ex-intelligence officers with UK's spy agency Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ).

Corporate lobbyist watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in its report "Spin doctors to autocrats: How European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes" earlier this year, named PGI as a "key lobbyist" in Bahrain during the crackdown on the Arab Spring.

It noted PGI had "developed an electronic system to track international media" for Bahrain, which was capable of "detecting and tracking insurgent activities".

Rewcastle also criticised Zahid for trying to put across the tampered claim by a private company as authoritative fact in his bid to silence the media.

"The Malaysian government has no right whatsoever to be relying on the say of a company hired by PetroSaudi who is under investigation.

"It is a totally inappropriate conflict of interest on the part of the home minister," she said.

However, Putrajaya is now in full gear with this narrative.

Already, NGOs aligned to the government lodged police reports today against the media which reported the allegations against 1MDB based on the leaked information.

Communication and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek also joined the fray, announcing that the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission may go after those who disseminate the "tampered" information.

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