The King of Kickbackistan goes full dictator

Joseph Muscat hasn’t just stopped speaking to journalists. Now he’s locking them up.

He already tried the Knights of Malta Option, walling himself off behind nested layers of barricades, but his metal bastions didn’t stop the cries of “Mafia” or “Assassin” from getting through, or the stray egg, even if they did wall Muscat off from the dangerous microphones of journalists.

And so, when last Thursday night’s 3am press conference had come to an end and the Ministers filed out the back door, journalists remained locked inside, not by police or by the Security Service, but by Party thugs dressed in matching black shirts.

This was done so Muscat could control the message. He needed his canned response and the three questions he condescended to answer to be the final word on what passed inside a heated Cabinet meeting.

He didn’t want his Ministers being asked questions by journalists. It would be inconvenient if they contradicted his version. And so he locked them in as his Ministers made their scuttling exit under il-Kink’s watchful eye.

This was a crime, and it was committed not just in the eyes of the world media, but against the world’s media. Yes, his minions didn’t just lock up Maltese journalists who have been facing the abuse of the public’s right to know for years. They also physically detained Reuters and BBC, among others.

These journalists from the world’s biggest and most highly respected media houses had flown to Malta to report on the shocking implosion of Muscat’s government.

Like worm-infested wood crumbling to dust at a touch, all it took was one arrest of the middleman Melvin Theuma to reveal the putrid mess festering under the thin skin of this kleptocratic regime.

And that’s what it’s become at this point: a regime.

The journalists were illegally detained, on whose orders no one seems to know, by men with no official position and with no official reason for being in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Of course, you can’t count on a trained policeman when it comes to illegally locking up the press in a supposedly democratic EU Member State. That would be against all his training, a violation of the oath he swore to uphold.

No, when it comes to enforcing one man’s rule, you need the pliable combination of deniability and brainless loyalty that only a gang of dirtbags can provide.

And so you need men like Labour Party apparatchik and Planning Authority officer Ronnie Vella, OPM customer care man Nikhail Karl Spiteri, Muscat worshipper Mark Gauci, former One News presenter Reuben Sciberras (now chomping on another iced bun as OPM Head of Secretariat), OPM factotum and Schembri fan Jason Bonnici, and 1980’s throwback Leli l-McKay.

All were identified as being among those illegally detaining journalists in Castille. When asked who they were, one squeaked out “security services”. Are they now the King of Kickbackistan’s personal Praetorian Guard?

Press freedom groups were outraged, of course. The European Federation of Journalists issued a statement, too, after a journalist was physically assaulted by a member of Parliamentary Secretary Clint Camilleri’s staff. 

But this outrage from abroad hasn’t stopped Muscat. The Prime Minister eventually issued a terse statement in which he described locking people in as a normal procedure to avoid crowding at the doors. Such things had never happened at press conferences before, but Muscat insisted anyone organising an event can establish whatever procedures they want — including, I suppose, the thugs whose presence he failed to explain. 

In the end, it’s just another story from a regime that has always been hostile to the press — at least, the press which isn’t owned by its own political party.

This Prime Minister and his inner circle routinely attacked journalists with frivolous libel suits meant to intimidate the press and silence stories. Muscat himself is still suing Daphne Caruana Galizia more than two years after her death in a car bomb that his own closest associates are now implicated in.

When they aren’t locking up journalists, they’re busy intimidating normal citizens.

It emerged this week that plainclothes police were spotted photographing protestors at the recent anti-corruption demonstrations that were held to call for Muscat’s immediate resignation.

Such intimidation tactics hit home in Malta, a country where keeping one’s head below the parapet has long been a part of the culture, and where students are told by teachers to “keep away from these things [protests] because they might take photos at events like these and in future someone might see the photos and recognise you and you might not be given a job because of that”.

It’s the sort of behaviour we’d expect to see in Turkmenistan. Perhaps Muscat’s One news should adopt the practice of their stations, which opened each broadcast with a pledge that the broadcaster’s tongue would shrivel if he slandered the flag, the country, or President for Life Niyazov?

Critical news media — including The Shift — have long been excluded from government press conferences on announcements related to their own investigations. This government routinely ignores Freedom of Information requests too, even when required by law to comply with them.

As for verbal questions, better save those for the Sunday Sermons. This past Monday, Muscat told journalists on the steps of Castille that he no longer feels the need to answer their questions.

Of course, he already said back in October that he would no longer answer questions about Yorgen Fenech’s company 17 Black. This was before Fenech was exposed as the alleged mastermind behind the assassination of the journalist who was, step by step, exposing them all.

Will Muscat answer questions on 17 Black now that his own Chief of Staff has been implicated by Fenech as the ‘true’ mastermind? In a functioning Western democracy, this thoroughly disgraced Prime Minister would be asked those questions by the police.

Don’t count on any of this coming up in parliament. He’s already shut that down until January. I guess he felt an early recess was in order, since the Opposition walked out days before, refusing to serve in the same House as the resigned-but-still-somehow-there Prime Minister whose web of corruption has brought Malta to its knees.

But did parliament take off for Christmas one week early because of the daily protests? Or was closing the House just hours before Theuma was to testify another convenient way of avoiding questions about Schembri?

Muscat doesn’t even try to hide it anymore. Shamelessly breaking laws in plain sight, even when an urgent EU delegation was here to meet with him over the country’s meltdown, hoping for reassurance and getting none.

Is it any wonder all of Europe now sees Malta as the perpetual problem child? At this point, it’s not just the juvenile delinquent no one wants to talk about at family dinners. It’s now seen as a threat, a gaping back door into Europe for purchased passport holders and money launderers, led by a Kleptocrat in Chief who just won’t go.   

                           
                               
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