Saturday, November 18, 2006

Murder riddle offers media a feeding frenzy

By: En-lai Yeoh

An exotic model is murdered. Two policemen are charged and a top political analyst with close ties to Malaysia's deputy prime minister is held for questioning. Add to this mix allegations of sex and extortion.

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Malaysian media were handed a recipe for a salacious scandal last month, and they are making the best of it.

The disappearance of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu after an alleged affair with the 46-year-old analyst set off a rare media frenzy in Malaysia with newspaper and TV reporters chasing clues, facts and lurid details to piece together a sordid tale of an alleged extramarital affair gone sour.

"It has the three Ss going for it: sensationalism, sex and scandal. The public likes to read [this kind] of news," said MKrishnamoorthy, chief reporter of Malaysia's largest-circulated English newspaper, The Star.

Journalists say the case has provided the local media a rare opportunity to show off their skills and work virtually unshackled for a change. Most news outlets are controlled by the ruling coalition's parties and must be careful while reporting on the government, the staple of daily news.

Still, the media has become bolder since Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took office three years ago with a promise to provide more freedom in public space.

"This Altantuya case gives us a bit more freedom, and I think everyone wants to get the feeling of being real journalists chasing a real story that people care about," said a TV journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The result has been some top-class investigation as well as wild speculations by The Star, the New Straits Times and a host of Chinese and Malay language newspapers. Most of their details have been extracted from police sources and dogged legwork and research. The details that have emerged so far are shocking: Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian model, went missing after being last seen alive October 19 outside the house of Abdul Razak Baginda, the married analyst with a 19-year-old daughter.

Days later police found human remains in a jungle. DNA tests later confirmed the remains - including skull fragments - were hers, amid media reports that she was shot twice and her body blown to bits by C4 explosives.

"The key question ... is how were arms and exclusive explosives obtained?" asked Jeff Ooi, a well-known blogger, on his Web site. The other question is how could they be "authorized to finish off a person's life by personnel from the police force?"

Abdul Razak was detained for interrogation November 7. He will be brought before a magistrate today, when he must either be charged, released or ordered to remain in custody. He has not commented on the case.

But two of the three policemen arrested in connection with the case were charged Wednesday with murdering Shaariibuu. Their link to the victim has not been disclosed.

Krishnamoorthy said the big interest in the story is because of the unusual cast of characters. "If it's a carpenter or a laborer involved it won't make such great news. But the guy alleged to be involved happens to be a political analyst ... [from whom] a certain level headedness and qualities are expected," he said.

Abdul Razak runs a think-tank established by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the two are known to be close friends. Abdul Razak is often quoted by foreign media for his analysis of the political situation.

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Local media have alleged that Abdul Razak and Shaariibuu had an affair that started two years ago, and that she came to confront him after he ended the affair.

Mongolian consul Syed Abdul Rahman Alhabshi, speaking on behalf of the family, has denied media reports that Shaariibuu came to Malaysia to extort US$500,000 (HK$3.9 million) from Abdul Razak. He said she came to ask for some money to help with an operation required for her 16-month old son.

"The fact that she has a kid makes the story a bit more dramatic. Things like this don't usually happen in Malaysia," said Logendranath Mohan, a Malaysian analyst working in Singapore. ASSOCIATED PRESS


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