Project description

The article explains the civil forfeiture suits brought by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in a bid to recover the funds allegedly siphoned from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a company owned by the Malaysian government.

In 2009, the then Malaysian prime minister Najib Abdul Razak founded 1MDB, which was tasked with promoting foreign direct investment into Malaysia. However, years later, reports were lodged globally against the company, claiming that the company’s money was allegedly misappropriated for personal gains.

In 2016 and 2017, the DOJ filed a series of civil forfeiture suits, aiming to recover the said funds, which reportedly exceeded US$4.5 billion.

The 1MDB saga is one of the biggest scandals in Malaysia which has caught the world’s attention. It is the most extensive actions brought under the DOJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

As such, the article targets a worldwide audience, not just Malaysian readers.

It is also in line with Malaysiakini’s editorial objective to promote democracy and hold those in power accountable by reporting issues that matter to help the public make informed decisions.

What makes this project innovative?

Instead of putting forward a wall of text to our readers with fragmented information, Malaysiakini is the first and only newsroom in Malaysia that “decoded” the court documents, and turned them into a visuals-driven explanatory article. We also experimented with a new presentation technique, which comprised scroll-to-reveal diagrams and text-based narrative. This was to provide an easier way for readers to understand the situation comprehensively. The key challenge was striking a balance between showing how complicated the money flow was and simplifying it enough for readers to follow. Sufficient context was added to assist readers, especially international ones, in understanding the bigger picture.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The story has accumulated 480,000 page views within a year, from the day it was published on March 31, 2018, to March 21, 2019. It has over 430,000 unique page views. There are always spikes in traffic to the page whenever there are any developments on the 1MDB issue or the DOJ lawsuit, indicating the audience is using the diagrams as a reference point to navigate through the case as it unfolds. On average, readers spend more than 5 minutes on the page. This is double the average time spent on pages for Malaysiakini’s daily news reports within the same time period. The story is the most-read story related to 1MDB on Malaysiakini between 2017 and March 2019. The story has also attracted a much wider audience than Malaysiakini’s typical news reports, with 21.5% of its traffic coming from overseas. The foreign reach for Malaysiakini’s news reports is usually around 15% to 17%. Furthermore, the article has been shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook. It shows that society is concerned about this issue and that the story is gaining traction. The project was published at a critical juncture, just before the Malaysian general election last year. Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal and Malaysiakini’s overall work in covering the issue along with a handful of foreign and independent media organisations were later cited by many as a reason for his coalition’s unprecedented loss in the election. Several key persons, including Najib, have been charged since the change of government. The DOJ pressed criminal charges against several figures in November 2018.

Source and methodology

The court documents filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) are the main source of data for the article. The documents are available on the DOJ’s website. The story was based on the second civil forfeiture complaint by the DOJ on June 15, 2017, in seeking of recovering the said assets. We went through the 251-page court document, detailing each transaction on several Google sheets and using it as the basis for the money flow diagrams. We verified the authenticity of the information in the court documents by cross-checking it against previous news reports, along with announcements made and actions taken by various authorities in different countries, especially in Malaysia. We also incorporated the comments of the people named in the suit to provide a balanced report.

Technologies Used

The project took about two months to complete. We went through a 251-page court document, detailing each transaction on several Google sheets according to the phases stated in the document. Secondly, we drew the flow charts on draw.io and exported them as SVG files. To help readers digest the information, we used different colours to distinguish each money laundering phase and broke up the main diagrams into smaller sections. Most importantly, we applied two JavaScript libraries - Waypoint.js and jQuery - to create the effect of showing and hiding parts of the main diagrams. To do that, we identified each element of each SVG file by inspecting them on a browser, before hiding the elements by default. We also categorised the elements in different classes. This allowed us to select the elements with different CSS class names using Waypoint.js, in order to show and hide them as and when the narrative requires. Finally, we built a microsite for the story with HTML, CSS, UIkit, and Javascript.

Project members

Sean Ho

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