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Diverting public attention from the story that won’t die

It isn’t enough to grudgingly stick to the deadline for an independent public inquiry only to launch another Egrant-style reputation washing where the subject of the inquiry controlled exactly what was investigated and what was released.

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

In the make-belief land of Malta, perception matters more than reality, and the only concern is controlling the message.

We’ve seen the pattern so many times before.

The government makes a grandiose promise, and pledges spending in the Budget, generating a fanfare of publicity and self-congratulatory back patting by ministers. But when the praise has faded to a mumble, the issue is quietly dropped.

Take social housing, for example. This government has pledged €50 million for social housing, year after year, in Budget after Budget. At this rate, you’d expect flats to be springing up all over Malta. Well, they are, but it’s not for social housing.

Know how many social housing units they’ve built? None. Zero. Not a single one since the so-called Workers’ Party took power.

The social housing crisis deepens even as friends of friends are granted public land at bargain basement prices. But what does it matter? They already got all the positive publicity they wanted simply by making a few announcements.

Seen in this context, the Prime Minister’s ‘announcement’ about an impending public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia — comments he made even as his Cleansing Department was busy removing every trace of the memorial to her in Valletta this week — is a joke.

“When it’s time to make announcements, we will make them,” Muscat said, stalling for time by stating the obvious so he can float the impression that he’s about to do what he’s told.

And make no mistake. Despite the arrogance and bluster of this Prime Minister and his Cabinet, he was told in no uncertain terms what he has to do.

So please, save the bluster for your Sunday sermons. You aren’t building your followers empty hopes over social housing. You’re walking a fine line where any misstep will result in your country being blacklisted as a pariah by the international community.

Anything short of a detailed explanation of the exact terms of the independent inquiry is unacceptable, because those terms and appointees must be carefully scrutinised before moving forward.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is crystal clear. The investigation must be public, independent, impartial and effective. The Board members must be qualified to sit on such an inquiry. And above all, they must have no conflicts of interest.

That means no one who answers to the Prime Minister or his inner circle can be appointed. No stuffing the panel with Labour Party or Nationalist Party cronies. No unqualified amateurs. And no phoney announcements to bombard the media with the impression that it’s ‘all clear’ and we should move on.

Joseph Muscat has already cast doubts on his intentions by dragging his heels to the very last minute, delaying and avoiding and dredging up excuses — and even issuing passive-aggressive threats, like, “I definitely will not be the person to shoulder responsibility if a public inquiry and its process ends up destroying the current case against the three arrested persons.”

That sort of stalling wouldn’t be acceptable in an elementary school classroom, and it isn’t acceptable here. Not when a journalist who was investigating serious corruption at the highest levels of government in Malta was violently murdered, and the very government she was writing about is in full control of the investigation.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has already told him, in no uncertain terms, that doubts already exist on the government’s intentions in finding and bringing the masterminds behind Caruana Galizia’s assassination to justice.

This government has done its best to divert public attention away from the story that just won’t die. They’ve manipulated us, twisted facts, and created false allegations against critics. Anything to get the public to look the other way. The daily removal of flowers from the memorial at the Great Siege Monument is just the most visible example.

Are these the actions of a government that wants to find out the truth about Caruana Galizia’s assassination? Or are they the actions of a government that wants to bury the truth, in the same way it’s doing with the memorial?

The two-year anniversary of this brutal killing is approaching, and all eyes are on Malta. The Council of Europe is watching closely. Every major international media outlet is watching. Parliamentarians, press freedom groups, and foreign governments are watching, too.

It isn’t enough to grudgingly stick to the Council of Europe’s deadline, only to launch another Egrant-style State-sponsored reputation washing, where the subject of the inquiry controlled exactly what was investigated and what was released.

There are additional ongoing inquiries into corruption at the highest levels of this government, and none have seen the light of day.

The model we have to follow under this administration is Egrant, where the person accused is the only one given a copy of everything that’s been said about him and his closest associates. And we’re just supposed to take his word for it when he claims that inquiry cleared his name.

Of course, it’s up to the discretion of the Attorney General to decide who the Egrant report is shared with. The accused can ask to see it, but it is against the law for that person to then share the report with others. So how did three Cabinet ministers quote sections from a report they shouldn’t be able to access? There are far too many unanswered questions.

It’s bad enough when no one is held accountable for such bumbling when allegations of serious financial crime are at stake. But now we’re talking about an assassination of a journalist who was investigating government corruption.

Anything that falls short of a truly independent, impartial, and public inquiry is an insult to the entire process. And it is highly suspicious.

Egrant. Pilatus Bank. The Panama Papers. Brothelgate. 17 Black. Electrogas. Vitals. There are a lot of people in positions of power in Malta who benefitted from Caruana Galizia being silenced.

Do you want to clear your name or don’t you, Joseph Muscat?

If the answer is yes, then stop playing around, appoint a truly impartial inquiry and step aside to let it work. The clock is ticking, and you’re running out of time.

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