SINGAPORE: The Straits Times on Sunday (May 27) responded to a report in The Edge Malaysia which claimed that an interview given to it by whistleblower Xavier Justo was scripted.
Mr Justo is a former director of energy group PetroSaudi International, which ran a joint venture with Malaysian state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) from 2009 to 2012.
It was documents that Mr Justo leaked after he left PetroSaudi in 2011 that triggered investigations in at least six countries into alleged theft of assets from 1MDB. The documents raised suspicions about how funds at the venture were used and prompted investigators to probe suspicions that money had been siphoned off from the joint venture.
In 2015, Mr Justo was jailed in Thailand for blackmailing PetroSaudi International and threatening to make public information gleaned from his time at the company.
STRAITS TIMES SCOOP IN JUL 2015
On Jul 24, 2015, the Straits Times published an exclusive interview by its then Indo-China bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh with Mr Justo, who claimed he was offered US$2 million by a group of people for the data he had obtained from PetroSaudi.
Mr Justo alleged that the group intended to “modify the documents” so that it could “bring down the Malaysian government” of then prime minister Najib Razak.
Mr Justo was never paid, the Straits Times said in its story.
The Edge said this so-called group was principally Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown, The Edge Media Group chairman Tong Kooi Ong, and CEO and publisher Ho Kay Tat.
“I immediately responded by admitting we did not pay Justo,” Mr Ho wrote in an article in The Edge on Friday as part of a 24-page report on 1MDB. He added that he had denied that the group was involved in a plan to topple Mr Najib’s government by publishing fake news about it.
“I said we were only out to get to the bottom of 1MDB’s financial woes and we had found from what Justo had shown us that a scam had taken place,” he wrote.
Mr Ho said he had asked the Straits Times in 2015 if there was a “hidden hand” involved in its story with Mr Justo, as even Malaysian police could not even interview him at the high security prison in Thailand.
“I suggested that the Straits Times bosses find out more from Nirmal about the people who arranged the interview with Justo. Whether they ever did so, I don’t know,” wrote Mr Ho.
On Friday, The Edge reported that Mr Justo said he was told what to say to the Straits Times in order to secure an early release from prison.
“He said after he was arrested and charged for blackmail, he was kept in a lockup with 50 others, and everyone was virtually sleeping on top of each other,” said Mr Ho.
“After a week, he was told he had a choice – either to cooperate or expect to languish in jail for many years. He was also told he would be out in less than a year if he agreed to make confessions that were prepared for him.”
Mr Justo named the "hidden hands" as PetroSaudi director Patrick Mahony and Paul Finnegan, a UK private detective who disguised himself as a Scotland Yard detective, according to The Edge.
Mr Justo had reportedly said he was handed “a list of 50 questions and answers that (he) was supposed to use” just before his interview with Mr Ghosh.
“Everything I told him was prepared by them (Mahony and Finnegan) and I was also told not to bring up the name Jho Low,” The Edge quoted Mr Justo as saying.
Mr Justo was freed from prison in an amnesty in 2016. He could have faced seven years in jail if he was found guilty of extortion.
“REPORTED HIS REMARKS ACCURATELY”
In response, Mr Ghosh said the story was done in good faith and reported accurately.
“If Justo's new claims are true, they are disappointing,” said Mr Ghosh in a statement printed in the Straits Times.
“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. More often than not, in interviews newsmakers tell their side of the story. This seemed no different.
“Whatever deals Mr Justo had made, or what his deeper calculation was, I was unaware of. To verify the claims and as per good journalistic practice, we asked for reactions from key people he named - and we used their reactions as well."
Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez said the newspaper approached the story in a professional manner.
"Every news organisation was pursuing this story and trying to get to speak to Justo,” he said in the Straits Times.
“Nirmal managed to get access, and got the story. He did a professional and creditable job. That was our only purpose in running this story."
Mr Fernandez added: “Our approach to this story was standard and professional.”
JUSTO ASSISTING MACC, MET WITH NEW PM MAHATHIR
On Thursday, Mr Justo met with investigators at Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) shortly before Mr Najib gave a second round of statements at the anti-graft agency.
Defeated at the May 9 general election, Mr Najib was summoned to explain suspicious transfers of RM42 million from 1MDB subsidiary SRC International into his bank account.
On May 20, Mr Justo had a surprise meeting with new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
"What a great privilege and what an incredible moment!" he wrote in a Facebook post.