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Disinformation Watch #26: Toxic tactics on 17 Black

Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Photo: DOI / Kevin Abela

The government’s assault on information intensified last week, as demands for the resignation of Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri increased following revelations that 17 Black – a Dubai company owned by Tumas Group’s Yorgen Fenech – was set to funnel millions of euro into the two Panama companies Mizzi and Schembri had set up a few days after the 2013 election.

There has been no accountability and no political responsibility. No answers or explanations were offered. Instead, the government has once again resorted to tapping into taxpayers’ money to save the skin of those in the eye of the storm. Meanwhile, MPs and government officials have used tactics straight out of the Russian playbook on propaganda to twist facts, create confusion and discredit critics.

Deny, deflect, delay

The Opposition called for an urgent parliamentary debate on 17 Black, but instead of addressing the issues and questions raised by the Opposition, Labour MPs reacted with a mixture of denial, deflection, and delay.

Labour MPs did not even mention the company’s name – 17 Black – setting the tone for the rest of the week:

Denial: Glenn Bedingfield, who was also employed as a communications aide in the Office of the Prime Minister (now he has another lucrative contract as executive chairman of the Cottonera Rehabilitation Committee), said that the government was not afraid to discuss facts, but the facts presented by the Opposition were all “lies”. None of the facts about 17 Black reported by The Times of Malta and Reuters have been denied or even contested. What is known about 17 Black is based on documented, undeniable facts; they are not allegations put forward by the Opposition.

Deflection: Rosianne Cutajar, who is also employed by OPM, called Opposition MP Simon Busuttil an “embittered loser” and proceeded to list the government’s Budget proposals. Other Labour MPs, like economy minister Chris Cardona, who has been shown to have close ties to the men charged with Caruana Galizia’s assassination, referred only to Egrant, saying that the Prime Minister’s family suffered dearly and that Muscat himself endured “character assassination”. Invoking Egrant, again without even mentioning 17 Black, was a technique common to all Labour MPs speaking in Parliament on Monday. Labour MPs also invoked Caruana Galizia’s reporting on Opposition Leader Adrian Delia’s money-laundering connection to a Soho brothel to deflect.

Delay: Chris Fearne, deputy Labour leader and health minister, speaking in the absence of Muscat, said that a judicial process has to be completed before political decisions can be taken, without referring to the fact that all inquiries into the secret companies owned by government officials and their associates are stuck in appeal; appeals filed by those same officials and their associates, including Muscat himself.

Twisting the narrative

As the government struggled to maintain its show of business-as-usual over the past week, its disinformation became increasingly unhinged from reality.

True to form, Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield invented a new piece of disinformation, saying that PN MP Jason Azzopardi’s statement in parliament – that 17 Black was to funnel €5,000 every day into Schembri and Mizzi’s Panama companies – was about Muscat.

In a statement spread by Labour trolls, the General Workers Union news portal iNews Malta, and Labour MEP Miriam Dalli, Bedingfield claimed that Azzopardi used his parliamentary privilege to say that Muscat was pocketing €5,000 a day.

Labour officials then used Bedingfield’s patently false claim to push an irrelevant, disconnected argument across social media about removing parliamentary privilege.

Blocking the press

Mizzi and Schembri have refused to take questions about 17 Black from the press to the point where Mizzi’s approach to the country’s free press has now become illegal.

On Tuesday, Mizzi invited only Labour’s ONE News and State broadcaster TVM for his Ministerial visit to the Malta Film Studios. The free press found out about the event after Mizzi uploaded the content to his social media. Muscat, when asked about Mizzi’s decision, said that he supported it.

Mizzi’s move is a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects our right to free expression, Article 1 of the Maltese Constitution, as well as constitutional “general principles of EU law and the EU charter,  lawyers as well as experts in EU law who spoke to The Shift confirmed.

The move was also in breach of the Ministerial code of ethics which states that Ministers have to inform the public and the media of their activities “on a regular basis and in an organised manner”.

The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) also said in a statement that access to government events was a “right not privilege”.

When doorstepped by Times of Malta’s Jacob Borg, Muscat repeated the line that magisterial inquiries into the issue are underway. Muscat said that he has every right to appeal against these inquiries, and that he does not get involved in his chief of staff Keith Schembri’s “business affairs”.

When The Times of Malta’s Claire Caruana asked justice minister Owen Bonnici why Muscat was blocking the magisterial inquiry he said he wanted ready before acting, Bonnici replied “that is incorrect” without saying why. Instead, he delivered a condescending reply, saying that he’s not going to enter into a “legalistic debate” with the journalist and ended the discussion.

There is not much to debate: the purpose of the appeal against the inquiries is to stop the inquiries. The non-guilty would see the inquiries as an opportunity to clear their names.

Creating a false reality

Mizzi has instead dramatically ramped up his advertising across social media, pushing sponsored posts claiming that the Electrogas power station is a success story of Mizzi’s ability to attract investment to Malta. He made sure he found an image where he could show Muscat’s backing.

Mizzi claims the power station has cut emissions “by 50%”, based on unsupported and unsourced statistics. Mizzi also said he acted decisively to cut electricity prices, that Mizzi cut hospital waiting lists; that Mizzi saved Air Malta.

Not a single one of the adverts pushed by Mizzi’s Ministry is based on fact.

Heel, Lorry, heel

The government’s delaying and deflection around the inquiries also confuses the right to appeal with criminal rules and proof.

The reason why we are dependent on magistrates, who have no prosecuting power, is that the police and the Attorney General, both of which have prosecuting power in this case, have showed a total dereliction of duty in their failure to investigate and prosecute Mizzi, Schembri, and Fenech.

It also confuses criminal culpability with basic accountability. Hanging onto the protection afforded to them by their office and Prime Minister, Mizzi and Schembri are refusing to step aside while a criminal investigation hangs over their heads.

They should not need anyone to ask for their resignation – they should step down and cooperate with investigating authorities (if they actually did their job).

Contrary to claims by those who have profited from a shift to Labour, like Robert Musumeci, there is no “legal right” to not resign or be removed from public office pending a criminal investigation. It is the public’s rights that are being trampled on: their right to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done without political interference.

The ultimate purpose of all this isn’t so much to prove a particular set of facts, but rather to distort information so that no one knows what to believe. These tactics were not invented by the Labour government – they are Soviet-era tactics used to manipulate the masses. The propaganda assault is well-organised and well-funded (thanks to taxpayers’ money). Yet it is also predictable, and this is its weakness.

The appeal to hypocrisy

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