in

The battle for the soul of the country

Thousands of people demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as those closest to him were forced to resign following revelations on Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. Photo: Repubblika

Joseph Muscat clings to power under increasing pressure from both Malta and abroad, as new information trickles out of the Caruana Galizia murder investigation that makes his position tenuous at best, and ominous at worst.

Pieter Omtzigt, Council of Europe Special Rapptorteur on Malta, raised the questions on everyone’s mind in a series of tweets on Thursday afternoon. “Did Muscat have access to wiretap evidence on Fenech and share it with Schembri?”

The Times of Malta confirmed Muscat knew businessman Yorgen Fenech was a suspect in the assassination as early as 15 months ago, and that Muscat personally signed the order for the Malta Security Services to tap Fenech’s phone, a decision normally taken by the Home Affairs Minister.

Did his chief of staff Keith Schembri attend Security Service briefings with the Prime Minister? And did he update Fenech on the progress of the investigation? We already know Schembri was passing information to Fenech right up until his arrest. Did Muscat know this, too?

Omtzigt also drew attention to the ability of the Maltese Prime Minister to control key institutions, an issue the Special Rapporteur raised in his report to the Council of Europe. “He appoints the security commissioner (secret services) and the police commissioner, judges, magistrates, ministers and almost every other important function in Malta.”

Opposition Leader Adrian Delia echoed these concerns in his second meeting with President George Vella where he requested action on this “unprecedented situation”.

“Every hour this doesn’t happen is a problem for the country,” Delia said. “Our country is being held hostage by the people who created a constitutional crisis. Joseph Muscat can never be part of the solution. Every minute that he stays on as PM increases the risk for our country, including justice not being served.”

By not resigning immediately and stepping away from a murder investigation that has now turned its lens on officials in the Office of the Prime Minister, Muscat has retained the ability to influence the direction of this investigation.

The Prime Minister also has the power to decide who is granted a presidential pardon, trading immunity from prosecution for evidence.

That means Muscat alone decides which information needs to be traded. He can deny a pardon if he feels the information provided is too weak. But he can also refuse to grant a pardon if the information implicates himself or his closest associates — including Schembri, widely believed to be the power behind Muscat’s throne, and someone who publicly described the Prime Minister as not just his boss but his “best friend”?

Can we trust Muscat to act impartially in this situation?

The European Union doesn’t think so. The European Parliament is sending a delegation on an urgent fact-finding mission to Malta next week, where they hope to meet with Muscat, the Opposition Leader, the Police Commissioner, the Attorney General, the Caruana Galizia family, and journalists. An urgent debate about the alarming situation in Malta will also be held in the European Parliament in December.

But will they arrive too late to make a difference?

The Prime Minister made a passing comment to a journalist who doorstepped him on his way into Castille on Thursday afternoon that has turned up the heat on their concerns. He said the investigations would soon be concluded, “hopefully in the next few hours”. Is Muscat trying to rush through some decisive act while he still has the power to do so?

Other organisations have echoed concerns over Muscat’s conflicts of interest, including the Chamber of Advocates, Aditus Foundation (whose mission is to monitor and report on human rights in Malta), and the world’s leading press freedom organisations.

As the crisis escalates and rumours spin out of control, the Prime Minister continues to avoid the press, refusing to give any updates on the case. “I was rebuked publicly by a number of people for sharing information in the public sphere,” he said, complaining that he is damned if he gives information and damned if he doesn’t.

His Cabinet has been avoiding the press too, prompting a rebuke from the Standards Commissioner on Wednesday after the Department of Information (DOI) failed to send a list of official press calls to media houses. The Shift is used to being left out of such calls — although they do know where to reach us when it comes to delivering libel suits. But the DOI’s statement that “at the time of writing, there are no events scheduled for tomorrow” suggested either incompetence or deliberate misinformation, given Health Minister Chris Fearne and Parliamentary Secretary Silvio Schembri’s attendance at an Igaming event that morning.

Ministers are avoiding uncomfortable questions. Others have not been so silent as they seek to distance themselves from Muscat and his inner circle after years of benefiting from his support.

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando posted a strange ‘open letter’ to Daphne Caruana Galizia on his Facebook page in which he accused her both of “frequent lies” and “telling the truth”. He seemed to be attempting to jump on the anti-corruption bandwagon, but his sincerity was called into question by an evident inability to apologise for being wrong.

There’s a sense of battle lines being drawn inside the Labour camp, as the disgraced former V18 chairman Jason Micallef retaliated with a bitter tirade of his own against Pullicino Orlando. Government blogger and MP Glenn Bedingfield weighed in next, attacking Muscat’s critics in a tweet where he said, “Let’s just hope that EU Parliament delegation coming to Malta will be objective and not prejudiced.”

One wonders what Bedingfield means by objective, given he ran a blog that fuelled hate against Caruana Galizia from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Most worrying of all is Muscat’s decision to call a mass rally on Sunday, bringing his Labour ‘soldiers of steel’ into the streets to show their support for the Party leader, as though the emerging facts in the case are irrelevant and might makes right. This resembles the actions of an autocratic government staging a display of force against its own citizens who withdrew their support as the excesses of that government’s rule were revealed.

In this case, those excesses are institutionalised corruption at best, and complicity in murder at worst.

Education Minister Evarist Bartolo referenced the growing tension in the air by posting another in a daily string of cryptic messages on Facebook. “In the conflagration that is burning in our country, we can choose to fuel the fire or douse it with water,” he said. “Justice can be served without fear or favour without burning this country to cinders and without burning or hurting those who want justice done. Justice can be served without burning the country and the whole population.”

But it isn’t clear who Bartolo is trying to warn. Is he joining his Cabinet colleagues in calling for what they’re referring to as ‘serenity’ and an end to protests? Or is he warning his own government and Muscat not to repeat the violence of the 1980’s? Given the gravity of the situation, Bartolo would do a better job of communicating what he means by speaking in clear terms, and following them through with action. A few days ago, Bartolo voted to keep Muscat in his role only to continue posting vague remarks and poetry on social media.

There’s a growing feeling that this is a regime with its back against the wall. Attempting to turn it into some sort of partisan showdown diverts the focus away from the shocking violations of the rule of law and the people’s trust which have been revealed this week. The risk of open violence is real.

That bunker mentality was evident in Valletta on Wednesday night, where both parliament and Castille were walled off behind barricades and rows of police, transforming Republic Street and Castille Square into a no-man’s-land in order to insulate government MPs from the citizens who came to protest against them.

But steel railings did not deter citizens who have had enough of corruption and enough of lies. Young people came out in larger numbers than have been seen at civil society protests in the past two years. Most of the student groups were represented. And they’ve begun organising their own protests as well.

But the question remains. Is Joseph Muscat untouchable?

His refusal to step down even when his own office and his closest associates were implicated in a political assassination, and his own Cabinet’s refusal to step up and take action, suggests that Muscat’s loyalty to his personal friends, and his determination to keep any investigation from examining his own possible role in the story, has taken precedence over the good of the country.

As the rest of the world watches the events playing out in Malta — from Bloomberg and The Financial Times to The Economist, Reuters, The Guardian, and the BBC — their shock is quickly turning to horror with the understanding that Malta is a failed State on the EU’s southern border.

Joseph Muscat’s fight for survival

Yorgen Fenech presidential pardon denied after six-hour Cabinet meeting