I found the timing of Keith Schembri’s arraignment and detainment uncanny. My thoughts immediately went to a post on Running Commentary titled ‘Konrad Mizzi’s and Sai Mizzi Liang’s Easter Lunch’ back in February 2016. Five years ago, just before Easter, Daphne Caruana Galizia dropped an enigmatic hint involving the Mizzi spouses and “their fixer Brian Tonna, who has a desk at the Auberge de Castille”.
That post would prove to be the opening tirade in a series that began to uncover the sleaze network involving the upper echelons of power and business in Malta. Daphne was hinting at what we would later find out to be the New Zealand Trust held by the disgraced Plenipotentiary Minister.
In the comments section to that post, there was an exchange between Daphne and one of her readers. Somebody calling himself “Peter Sanga” wondered whether Daphne didn’t worry that by revealing information in this manner she would give the parties involved in these facts “time to pre-empt her strike”. Daphne replied: “What do you imagine will happen? An assassination attempt? Please.”
Those words, that retort probably written with a touch of cheeky bravado, jump out of the screen and cannot but have a chilling effect on any reader. I am quite sure that Daphne’s reply was more hyperbolic than anything. Here was a reader fussing that crooked politicians could make stories vanish, that the powerful could ‘alter the facts’ given ample time. And here was Daphne dismissing this concern by asking what in 2016 would seem unimaginable. She exaggerated to make her point.
We all know what happened next. Rather than look at the events that have unravelled with hindsight though, try for a moment to take yourself back five years. Think, for a moment, at the attitude you may have had with regards to the information being disclosed. February 2016 is the moment when we started to get hints of the intricate web of corruption that had penetrated the system of government. Most of us at the time would have believed that the idea of an assassination to silence investigating journalists would be nothing more than dramatic hyperbole to make a point.
The trenches began to be dug around then. Three years into Muscat’s first term the anti-corruption movement began to take shape, and a week after the first Panama Papers revelations we had a national protest against corruption. Panamagate was on fire.
In a blog post that I had written that week (‘No Flowers in Panama‘), I looked at what had led us to Panamagate, analysing what lies behind the corruption of the State. It is relevant to think back to that time now. To do so helps us understand that Saturday’s events are only the tip of the iceberg. They represent a tiny chink in the armour of the corrupt behemoth and a tiny, tiny battle that could either kick off a huge war on a failed State or signify the last nail in the coffin of the movement for change.
Five years ago, one of the men arraigned on Saturday was sitting comfortably in the seat of power fixing links and dirty deals. When the wheels of opposition slowly moved into place to challenge this web of corruption, this man and others around him were protected by a wall of invincibility and an army of faithful led by a disgraced prime minister.
The Allied Newspaper deal that is at the heart of this week’s arraignments is separate from other deals that evidently stink of corruption. The ‘working institutions’ have until now only brought this particular band before justice (not to justice since the trial is only just beginning). They got there with no thanks to the appropriate institutions but rather through the initiative of a private citizen – then Opposition leader Simon Busuttil and his much-derided ‘pizza boxes’.
Many questions remain unanswered while the failed State and failed governors still continue to stand by the corrupt system, closing ranks in defence. While our current prime minister appeared on Labour TV to distance himself from the disgraced former chief of staff, our disgraced former prime minister took to Facebook to post his narrative still posing as a victim of some unholy conspiracy.
In truth, we still have not moved much further from our situation in 2016. We still have many unanswered questions about deals that stink, about corrupt contracts, and about corrupt institutions. What we do know now is that yes, assassination was on the table as a means to keep investigative journalists silent.
This is no time to get complacent. The crooks are still very much everywhere and the situation is only a fraction less desperate.