A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris
A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

It was a major scoop for The Straits Times, Singapore’s newspaper of record: an exclusive interview with Xavier Justo, the former PetroSaudi executive-turned-whistleblower in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, while he languished in a Bangkok prison.

Now, a story in The Edge Singapore claims that the interview had been scripted by Saudi oil producer PetroSaudi. The US Justice Department alleged in 2016 that 1MDB officials had used a PetroSaudi joint venture as cover to transfer US$700 million to an unrelated account.

During the 2015 interview, Justo told The Straits Times’ then Indochina bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh that he had been promised US$2 million by a Malaysian businessman for information related to 1MDB. Tong Kooi Ong, chairman of the Malaysia-based Edge Media Group, admitted after the story was published that he and his publisher, Ho Kay Tat, had misled Justo into believing that he would be paid.

“But that was the only way to get hold of the evidence to expose how a small group of Malaysians and foreigners cheated the people of Malaysia of US$1.83 billion (6.98 billion ringgit),” Tong wrote in a statement.

Justo also claimed that the group of people he had given the information to — including Clare Rewcastle-Brown of Sarawak Report, an independent news site that was key in breaking the 1MDB scandal including allegations of 1MDB-linked funds found in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank accounts — had tampered with the information “to try to bring down the Malaysian government.”

Saudi Arabia's King Salman speaks with Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during a Memorandum of Understanding signing ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman speaks with Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, Malaysia February 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

The Straits Times’ story, co-reported by Ghosh and Malaysian correspondent Shannon Teoh, won Story of the Year at the 2016 Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Awards. SPH, a major media organization in Singapore, owns The Straits Times alongside a raft of newspapers and magazines.

The Straits Times has recently defended the story in its pages after Ho Kay Tat, publisher of The Edge Media Group, wrote in a special 1MDB pull-out in The Edge Singapore that the interview had been scripted.

“They handed to me a list of 50 questions and answers that I was supposed to use for my interview just before I saw him [Nirmal Ghosh],” Justo told Ho about the alleged attempt to discredit 1MDB reporting. “Everything I told him was prepared by them [PetroSaudi director Patrick Mahony and former UK policeman Paul Finnegan] and I was also told not to bring up the name Jho Low.”

Low, a Malaysian financier, is seen as a key figure in the 1MDB scandal; his whereabouts are currently unknown. Mahony was at the time a top executive at PetroSaudi, while Finnegan was a private detective. Sarawak Report claimed that Finnegan had been hired by PetroSaudi and had posed as an officer assigned to the case by Scotland Yard.

Asia Times could not find current contact information for Mahony or Finnegan.

Justo has since been heralded as a hero in Malaysia for leaking the documents that triggered investigations into 1MDB, even scoring a meeting with new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Justo described the meeting as a “great privilege” and “incredible moment on his Facebook page without divulging details of their discussions.

Malaysia-Mahathir Mohamad-Xavier Justo-1MDB-Whistleblower-May 2018-Facebook
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad with PetroSaudi executive-turned-whistleblower Xavier Justo, May 2018. Photo: Facebook

Ho has alleged that “hidden hands” had been involved in The Straits Times getting the story, at a time when even the Malaysian authorities reportedly could not interview Justo. “Why the ‘hidden hands’ decided to use Nirmal and ST for the Justo ‘confession’ to spin a fake narrative is open to speculation,” he wrote.

Although this is the first time The Straits Times has been mentioned, it isn’t the first time Justo was reported to have been pressured by Mahony and Finnegan into making self-incriminating statements, including a “confession” in which he supposedly admitted to blackmailing PetroSaudi and stealing data.

In July 2016, Sarawak Report—which had been named in The Straits Times’ story—published a long exclusive claiming that Justo had been terrorized and “blackmailed into signing a forced confession without being allowed his lawyer present.”

The report also claimed that Justo had been forced to participate in “staged interviews with selected journalists”, including with Swiss reporters, organized by a public relations advisor who was actually working for PetroSaudi. 1MDB is also under investigation in Switerland, among at least five other jurisdictions.

The Edge Singapore’s allegation was firmly rejected by both Ghosh, now The Straits Times’ US bureau chief, and the paper’s editor, Warren Fernandez.

Singapore-Straits Times-Newspaper
The Straits Times newspaper and other Singapore Press Holdings publications. Picture: Facebook

“I pursued the story as a professional journalist, trying various ways to get details on the case and access to Mr Justo. I put in a request to his Thai lawyer for an interview. When I was told by the lawyer I could interview him, I proceeded in good faith and reported his remarks accurately,” Ghosh said in a short statement reported in The Straits Times.

“Every news organization was pursuing this story and trying to get to speak to Justo. Nirmal managed to get access, and got the story. He did a professional and creditable job,” said Fernandez, saying that the paper had not been party to any deals.

It was not an answer that satisfied Ho, however. “[The Straits Times] and Nirmal [Ghosh] have not given the complete account of how he got the interview with Justo in a Bangkok prison,” he told Asia Times in an email. “Nirmal mentioned only his contact with a lawyer. I think there was more than just the lawyer who was involved.”

In response, Ghosh told Asia Times that, to the extent of his knowledge, Justo’s Thai lawyer had been the only individual involved in arranging the interview, and that he had not provided a list of questions to anyone prior to the interview.

The claim that Singapore’s most prominent news publication has been used in a spin campaign to discredit investigative reporting into a scandal that has since been described by US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions as “kleptocracy at its worst” has made certain media waves, though it’s received minimal coverage in the Singaporean mainstream media.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attends a news conference in Menara Yayasan Selangor, Pataling Jaya, Malaysia May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attends a news conference, Pataling Jaya, Malaysia May 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Singapore has carried out investigations into allegations of money laundering at 1MDB. Swiss-based private banks BSI and Falcon were ordered to shut down their Singapore operations over the scandal, while banks UBS, DBS, UOB and Credit Suisse have all been fined.

In 2017, the Monetary Authority of Singapore said that bank accounts and assets amounting to over US$178 million related to 1MDB had been “curtailed.”

The Edge’s allegations comes at a time when agreements between Singapore and Malaysia made under the previous Najib administration are being reconsidered by Malaysia’s new government. For example, new premier Mahathir has announced plans to scrap a multi-billion dollar high-speed rail project with Singapore.

At the same time, Singapore’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods held public hearings in March, and is expected to release a report of its findings on how to tackle so-called “fake news.”

Some comments on social media have labelled The Straits Times’ report on 1MDB as “fake”, but affixing such a label to the story is far too simplistic, especially when there’s no evidence that The Straits Times had been directly involved or complicit in scripting Justo’s interview.

But it nonetheless raises uncomfortable questions of how the government will deal in future with such complex and multi-layered stories if it follows through in imposing criminal legislation against “fake news.”