This weekend the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, hit back at criticism by his predecessor Dr Mohammad Mahathir.
He claimed that since he has been loyal to him in the past, Mahathir should stop questioning the corruption surrounding his own pet ‘development project’ 1MDB.
But, behind the scenes it has become clear that Najib operates very differently against those he regards as his political enemies.
Sarawak Report has gathered further evidence, which reveals how the PM’s publicly funded communications team is continuing to target and defame opponents by sponsoring smear pieces in newspapers, which pose as objective journalism and expert ‘opinion pieces’.
The businessman Jho Low has also been involved, as he himself admitted:
“These Umno guys are spin masters; they know all this sort of nonsense”[Jho Low Euromoney Magazine].
Over the past months both Anwar Ibrahim and Dr Mahathir have been subject to these insidious attacks, all funded by the tax payer through Najib’s long-standing communications chief, the UK national Paul Stadlen.
Stadlen is also the orchestrator of a team of so-called cyber troopers, whose job is to add pro-Najib comments to potentially damaging articles in online news outlets.
Stadlen, whose nightclubbing reputation has become somewhat legendary in KL, is a survivor of the PR company APCO’s hugely inflated contract to boost Najib’s predecessor Badawi.
This contract was inherited by Najib, who continued to use APCO.
It was Anwar Ibrahim who put an end to the cosy arrangement, by revealing the multi-million dollar figures involved and pointing out the irony that a virulently anti-Israeli BN government had hired a Tel Aviv based company to manage its PR.
Najib was forced to cancel the contract, which resulted in a venomous resentment on the part of APCO’s bosses by all reports, leading to a sustained campaign in subsequent years by related parties, who have worked hard to depict the opposition leader as an anti-semitic, Muslim terrorist sympathiser.
These attackers included the PR company FBC media, which picked up the APCO contract (while still working with them in Washington on the Malaysia brief).
Paul Stadlen, APCO’s former Malaysia boss, himself moved briefly to FBC media, before setting up his own communications outfit, which was then hired back directly by the Prime Minister’s office to supervise Najib’s public image and manage the FBC contract.
Once again, the huge sums being paid for this foreign advisor have proved a source of comment and concern.
Sarawak Report has had cause in previous years to point out the dirty tactics that Stadlen and FBC Media proved willing to employ for their very inflated salaries, which involved breaking media laws in the US and the UK.
It is plain from the outset that Najib targeted Anwar as a crucial political threat, not just locally but internationally.
He and his wife Rosmah felt sidelined by his liberal reputation in the West and the sympathy engendered by his years of imprisonment.
According to emails written by the crony businessman Jho Low, which we have already published, the PM, or more particularly Rosmah, wanted Anwar’s reputation to be destroyed.
Low and his contacts were put to work in the Middle East to spread the word that Anwar was a busted flush in Malaysia and a dangerous Muslim radical to boot.
Meanwhile, a team of Texan bloggers, lead by a vocal right-wing, anti-Palestinian opinion writer called Josh Trevino, was hired by FBC to do the same job in the United States.
FBC was paid RM84 million out of the Prime Minister’s office budget to perform this task while boosting Najib on the world media.
For an extra USD$5 million a year FBC also agreed to take on a related contract on behalf of Taib Mahmud to perform a parallel hatchet job on Sarawak Report.
As part of a wider campaign of black ops and smear tactics across the internet, Trevino set up a blog called New Ledger, which purported to be servicing right wingers in America interested in world affairs.
But, in fact the content consisted of attacks on Anwar and later Sarawak Report, which were then ‘bounced back’ into Malaysia, using Bernama and other government agencies, as if they were reflecting mainstream US opinion.
FBC media also provided documentaries and news items for peppercorn rates to certain BBC TV outlets and to CNBC, which were actually PR to promote their real clients, Najib Razak and Taib Mahmud.
When Sarawak Report exposed the scam, which involved breaking broadcast laws, FBC’s programmes were taken off air by the two broadcasters and the PR/Production company was shut down.
New Ledger was also scrapped and later Josh Trevino was sacked by the Guardian newspaper for his history of submitting so-called “opinion pieces” to theirs and other news organisations, which were in fact paid for PR, commissioned by Najib.
So, one might think that Paul Stadlen would have learnt his lesson about the dangers of engaging in such black PR tactics and commissioning bogus ‘opinion articles’, which were really smear pieces.
However, it appears he has not and he has recently moved to entangle yet another British journalist in his malicious black ops tactics.
In recent months the targets have continued to be Anwar Ibrahim but also Dr Mahathir, following the former premiere’s growing criticism over the raiding of funds from 1MDB.
Stadlen’s agent in this matter has been his newest recruit to the Prime Ministerial communications team, Sholto Byrnes.
Byrnes is a British freelance journalist, who developed a focus on the Middle East and Malaysia, arriving in KL last year to take up a position as a ‘Senior Fellow’ at the government funded Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS).
Before that he had spent four years at a think tank in Qatar.
Byrnes has a background as a liberal minded, intellectual writer. However, he attracted notice in October of last year with his notably persistent and hostile questioning of Anwar Ibrahim at a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club in KL.
Sarawak Report has evidence that it was around this time that Najib’s communications chief Paul Stadlen hired him onto his team funded by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Since then our research indicates that Sholto Byrnes has adopted a consistently critical tone in a series of articles directed pointedly against Dr Mahathir and also against Anwar Ibrahim.
What is particularly striking is that the tone and opinion of these recent articles contrast markedly with the position taken by the same journalist over the same men in earlier opinion pieces.
Byrnes’ attacks have been largely carried in two news outlets, before being picked up in Malaysia blogs. These are The National, which is based in Abu Dhabi and the South China Morning Post.
An article he wrote in the South China Morning Post on the day that Anwar was jailed for a second time on sodomy charges provoked particular anger in many circles, because it repeated an untruth that had been promoted by Paul Stadlen’s own speedy press release released just moments after Anwar’s conviction, alleging that his accuser had been subjected to a brutal attack.
Speaking to the television outlet Al Jazeerah the same day, Byrnes used almost identical language to Stadlen’s own much criticised accusation that Anwar had been found guilty of forcing himself on a young aide.
It was left to the New York Times to point out that the aide himself had admitted there had been no element of force and that the prosecution had dropped all charges on that front.
In his article on the subject dated February 11th for the South China Post, entitled “Anwar’s Jail Term Finally Gives Malaysia Some Closure”, Sholto Byrnes once again gave his opinion under his supposed objective and expert capacity as a Senior Fellow of ISIS.
He failed to mention his personal interest as a paid up member of the PM’s communications unit.
In this article the British journalist blatantly shafted Anwar and promoted Najib, citing that the jailing of the opposition leader on grounds of homosexuality was a good thing for Malaysia.
And he taunted Najib’s opponents saying that Anwar’s career was now over and “the opposition must now prove it can move on”:
…. Tuesday’s sentencing was marked by outrage, but much of it is misplaced….
Those close to Prime Minister Najib Razak rejected suggestions that the prosecution was politically motivated. They point to the overwhelmingly negative international coverage that they knew a guilty verdict would produce…..
Regardless of whether one thinks homosexual acts should be illegal, the fact is that they are in Malaysia, and not one politician has called for them to be legalised. Certainly not Anwar, whose sexuality has long been the subject of rumour….
… This time, a young male aide said he was coerced into non-consensual sex by his older employer, a powerful and charismatic politician of whom he was in awe. The real scandal would have been if the police had not investigated…
More broadly, Anwar is not to be compared to Nelson Mandela, no matter how often he likes to mention South Africa’s late president in the same breath as himself.
There was little reason to believe that, if Anwar had not fallen out with Mahathir, he would have been the great reformer he later claimed he was. While in government, he was up to his ears in money politics…
Longer term, the fractious opposition now needs to show that it’s about more than Anwar; that it has a positive agenda (rather than attempting to undermine programmes such as Najib’s 1Malaysia initiative, which is just the kind of inclusive policy they claim to believe in)…
This verdict may have brought Anwar’s career to an ignominious end and left his friends and family in great distress. But it has vindicated his victim, and finally closes an unnecessarily turbulent chapter in Malaysia’s history, a third of which – far too long – has been spent against the backdrop of Anwar’s trials and theatrics.[Sholto Byrnes, South China Post]
These were maverick opinions for a western journalist, whose own government like the United States had been forced to express concern at Anwar’s treatment.
However, Byrnes would have been entitled to them if they were genuinely held.
Yet, what are we to make of the contrast between such remarks with his earlier articles on the same topic, written before his engagement by Paul Stadlen onto the PM’s communications team?
For example, back in 2011 in an article for the Independent Sholto Byrnes made fun of the BN government’s “one tracked mind” in its relentless pursuit of Anwar over various sex accusations.
He took a remarkably different approach in this earlier article:
The man once feted as Newsweek’s “Asian of the Year”, whose supporters include Al Gore, the former US vice-president, and Paul Wolfowitz, a former World Bank president, is also accused of being the star of a 21-minute sex tape featuring a Chinese prostitute (by way of variation, female), a clip of which was briefly posted on YouTube….
…Anwar’s sodomy trial, which has been dragging on since February 2010, is widely thought to be politically motivated. So is the sex tape…Sardar, a prominent scholar of Islam and cultural critic in this country, was an adviser to Anwar when he was deputy prime minister in the 1990s and warned him then that his enemies would seek to destroy him through manufacturing allegations of homosexuality.
“One can always fudge the evidence,” he told me. “And in Malaysia it carries a heavy penalty” – both a prison sentence (Anwar’s initial conviction for sodomy was later quashed) and, even before any verdict, the suspicion of the rural and religious Malays that he had been up to something “abhorrent and unnatural”….
“This phenomenon isn’t limited to Malaysia,” said Nik Nazmi, the communications director of Anwar’s party PKR, on the Malaysian Insider website recently. “But Malaysians seem to be possessed by an insatiable curiosity about what happens in other people’s bedrooms.” [Sholto Byrnes, Independent 2011]
Mr Byrnes may claim that as a freelancer he was writing in two different cases to please two different sets of opinions. But, to what extent did his contract with the PM’s Department assist his conversion into a believer in Anwar’s guilt?
After all, back in 2008, in a separate article for the Guardian newspaper he was even more emphatic about what he described as the “shocking news” that new charges of sodomy had been brought against Anwar,
Far from describing Anwar as being “up to his neck in money politics”, in this article Byrnes called him the charismatic leader of “reformsi” adding that “it goes without saying that everyone considers the new allegations to be ridiculous”:
“.. Anwar, whom the world remembers as the “reformasi” leader of a decade ago, the high-flying, charismatic finance minister sacked by Mahathir Mohamad,
PM at the time, who was then tried and convicted of sodomy and corruption not long after Newsweek made him their “Asian of the Year”. It goes without saying that everyone considers the new allegations to be ridiculous. No one ever thought the original sodomy charge had anything in it either (that judgment, although not the corruption conviction, was overturned in 2004). The government denies any involvement, but Anwar’s accuser was clearly acting on behalf of, if not the BN, then their proxies or sympathisers…..
….This last scandal reached boiling point recently when the editor of the Malaysia Today website filed a court document implicating deputy PM Najib Tun Razak’s wife in the murder. Local observers wonder whether the timing of the accusations against Anwar was entirely coincidental. Najib was expected to take over from the current PM, Abdullah Badawi, but now his position isn’t looking too strong and the Anwar story has taken minds off Najib’s troubles. [Sholto Byrnes Guardian 2008]
So what changed Sholto’s mind to provoke a very different swipe made a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi’s The National against the same man on the eve of his controversial second conviction at the outcome of this case.
Stadlen and his colleagues from APCO would have felt most vinciated by the remarks of their new recruit about their lost contract in this attacking article:
“When Anwar subsequently went to prison in 2000, critics declared the charges to be trumped up. The alleged aim was to remove from politics a liberal reformer who was the greatest threat to what they said was an authoritarian regime. Whether he deserves that reputation is debatable, to say the least.
He has resorted to unabashed and at times ugly populism. In 2010, he criticised the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, for employing a “Jewish-controlled” public relations firm, and warned, ludicrously, of “Zionist influence” in Malaysia. As for his zeal for reform, this was a cause he discovered only after serving for 15 years in the governing coalition as a minister and eventually deputy prime minister, until his falling out with Dr Mahathir.[The National]
Something has clearly changed Sholto’s mind both about Anwar Ibrahim and about Najib Razak since he took up his secret work for the PM’s office.
And Sarawak Report has detected a similar pattern of evolution in his articles relating to the former premier and Najib’s new No 1 enemy, Dr Mahathir Mohammad.
Back in earlier times Sholto had shown himself to be most admiring of Malaysia’s strong man, despite criticism from other quarters over his often controversial views and his treatment of civil liberties.
In an article in 2003 entitled “Mahathir Knows Best” Sholto made light of the then PM’s controversial behaviour:
Byrnes summed up this “Op Ed” by rounding on the BBC for comparing Mahathir to Mugabe:
“…his dictatorial tendencies, led the BBC’s grande dame, John Simpson, to call Mahathir ‘a kind of successful Asian Robert Mugabe’ at the weekend. The comparison is ridiculous…..
…. it is a shoddy and stupid label to give a man who has transformed Malaysia economically, opened up its constitution, kept the peace in a country once riven by racial riots, and who ought to be acclaimed by the West as the very model of a moderate Muslim leader. [Sholto Byrnes 2003]
Yet, by the end of last year Sholto Byrnes had ceased to think that Mahathir knows best. He started writing a series of articles attacking him for undermining Najib instead.
These articles radiated admiration for Najib’s policies and supposed economic triumphs and glossed over the growing scandal over 1MDB, which was what was provoking Mahathir’s criticism of the Prime Minister.
In December, in his frequent outlet the South China Morning Post, Byrnes, describing himself as a ‘Kuala Lumpur based commentator’ lambasted Mahathir in an article, which reads like an election broadcast for Najib, claiming pointedly that under him the courts have “recovered their independence”:
“He [Mahathir] oversaw a period of stunning growth, but corruption grew on his watch while the judiciary became so tarnished that one senior jurist observed in 2001: “It used to be that the tinting of judges’ cars was for security, but now I say it is to hide my embarrassment.”
The courts may have since recovered their independence, but today Mahathir’s continued involvement in politics, well into his retirement, has reached the stage that he is in severe danger of undermining his own legacy completely. He has already helped unseat one prime minister, his handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi….
Currently, though, Mahathir appears to be doing everything he can to sabotage the position of Badawi’s successor, Najib Razak. This is another matter completely, as Najib is a pragmatic moderate who has won plaudits both for his steering of the economy – last year foreign direct investment in Malaysia was the highest ever, and the country is on course to reach developed nation status by 2020 – and for his diplomatic initiatives, such as helping negotiate the historic Bangsamoro peace deal in the Philippines and brokering the political solution to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy.
For Mahathir, however, this is not enough. Having publicly withdrawn his support from Najib in August, he – or his proxies – tried and failed to foment a rebellion against the premier last month at the general assembly of Umno, the lead party in the ruling National Front coalition.
His hand is believed to have been behind a police report filed this month in connection to a state investment fund closely associated with the prime minister…
This is hugely damaging to Umno, the party to which Mahathir has belonged…If it were to lose power because of his machinations, Mahathir would have helped bring down the coalition he himself had led for so long. That would be a disastrous coda to his political life.
I write as an admirer of Mahathir, one of very few Western journalists, I imagine…But for the good of his party, the National Front, and for himself too – he is 89 – it is surely time for Mahathir to take a back seat….” [South China Post]
In recent weeks the articles emanating from Mr Byrne have continued to doggedly promote the beleaguered Najib. In an article in the National, which was ‘bounced back’ into Malaysia via the Star he has promoted him as a foreign leader:
“Malaysia is a prime example of a small country using soft power to punch well above its weight. Its population of 30 million is one-eighth that of Indonesia, which lies to its south, and less than half of Thailand, to its north.
But it has been the discreet, personal diplomatic efforts of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak that have borne the most fruit, both regionally and beyond” [The Star]
In another article entitled “Free Speech is fine, but who wants a vile rant” he defended Najib’s right to uphold the Sedition Act, praising Malaysia for being better than Vietnam:
“In Vietnam, dissident bloggers have been detained, jailed and beaten. In Malaysia, on the other hand, such critics thrive in the country’s online publications”
All journalists write for money and they accept different publications promote different viewpoints, which many journalists feel entitled to oblige.
However, paid for PR should be acknowledged, not kept secret.
Instead of calling himself “a commentator and editor based in Doha and Kuala Lumpur” or by-lining himself in articles as a “Senior Fellow of ISIS”, Sholto Byrne and Paul Stadlen should just admit that these articles are mere advertorials paid for by the taxpayer to boost Najib’s image and smear his enemies.