Malaysia frees journalists as it seeks Australian support over China 

Kuching waterfront, Borneo. Source: Flickr

The Australian journalists detained in Malaysia after trying to question Prime Minister Najib Razak have flown to Singapore after the authorities said no charges would be taken against them.

The news comes as Malaysia moves to win Canberra’s backing over China’s militarisation of South China Sea islands it has occupied and artificially extended.

ABC reporter Linton Besser and cameraman Louie Eroglu landed in Singapore on a Malaysia Airlines flight.

“It’s been something of a rollercoaster,” Besser said before leaving. “We came to Sarawak expecting to be here only a matter of hours really. And so it’s been pretty eventful being arrested.”

“I expected the worst. I basically prepared for the worst case scenario,” Eroglu added.

The pair were due to be charged over Besser’s questioning of Najib, but prosecutors changed their minds on Tuesday.

The police claimed the pair crossed a police line and ignored their instructions while attempting to question Najib, which the pair deny.

“[We] never crossed a police line. There was no police line,” Besser said. “The first time I got an instruction was after I threw a couple of questions for the prime minister to answer and the police told me to stop and step away, and that’s exactly what I did.

“Louie stopped filming and we cooperated at all times with the police. There was no obstruction at all.”

The pair were under threat of two years in jail.

“When we got the news that last night we’re going to be charged, that was very disappointing and alarming,” Besser said. “And then in the middle of the night, getting a knock on the door from Louie, that there’s been a sudden change of plan again.

“Our lawyer came to the hotel and said he’s received written confirmation from the chief of police that the charges were now going to be dropped. So that’s a great relief.”

A statement from ABC News director Gaven Morris said he was “very glad and relieved”. “They did nothing wrong in Kuching. They were doing journalism. This incident has demonstrated again why it is vital to defend media freedom, including the right to question authority,” he said.

The Malaysian U-turn might be linked to Kuala Lumpur’s efforts to win Australian backing over the South China Sea dispute.

Defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he would meet his Australian counterpart next week to discuss China’s military build-up in the disputed sea.

Hishammuddin said the meeting with Australian defence minster Marise Payne would seek support to ensure efforts were made to “hold China to their promise of not placing military assets in the area”.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the resource-rich waters.

“If the reports we’ve received from various sources regarding the build-up and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true – this forces us into a pushback against China,” Hishammuddin told reporters.

In September, China’s President Xi Jinping said he had no intention of militarising his outposts in the Spratly islands.

Asean announced last month it was “seriously concerned” over recent missile and fighter jet deployments by China in the Paracel island chain.

Hishammuddin said he would meet authorities in Vietnam and the Philippines, adding that Malaysia “cannot act alone in stopping the aggressive actions”.

“We need the support of other Asean countries, and I will continue to [seek it]”, Hishammuddin said. “This is important for us to maintain balance and to curb the actions by superpowers, whether it is China or the United States.”