A banner goes up outside the offices of The Times of Malta. It reads “Times of Mafia”. The ‘usual suspects’ – NGOs that are used to speak through banners – deny any involvement this time round. Not Occupy Justice, not Repubblika. In fact, they state unequivocally that they would not use the term Mafia to describe victims.
All evidence seems to point to the manipulator who was behind the ‘Daphne’s Laptop’ banners – somebody intent on deviating from the ills surrounding the Labour Party. There is an immediate surge of sympathy for The Times. ‘Times bashing’ becomes a thing. If you are a ‘Times basher’ you are assisting those who would want the truth to be hidden.
As editorial after editorial is dedicated to a massive exercise of damage limitation by the victims, we are told that Malta cannot afford to lose an historic institution. Dealing a death blow to a newspaper that is on its knees would leave an ugly unfillable vacuum. Do not play in the hands of the evil forces that would rather see its back.
Would that it were so simple. As the rot in the system gradually unfolds we must resist the temptation to reduce everything into a black and white exercise of good vs evil. Allied Newspapers were involved in Keith Schembri’s Al Capone moment. That much is true. This is the case that should, in normal circumstances, lead to investigations on anything Keith Schembri touched in his time as chief of staff.
There are many stories though, many overlapping truths, not just the single story of the Allied Board being in connivance with Schembri and bleeding millions of euros. Questions may and will be asked of the role of their team of investigative journalists and how far they dug into a possible scandal happening under their own noses. There should be nothing wrong in raising such concerns and surely, they cannot be swept under the carpet with the lame excuse that this is ‘Times bashing’.
Of course, there are bigger fish to fry. Of course, the questions to be asked do not only concern these truths. Still. Chasing one truth does not exclude chasing another. The role of the Fourth Estate is crucial enough to warrant that such questions are raised without receiving bullying, condescending replies in return. It does not mean either that the guard will be lowered with regards to the hundreds of other issues to be solved.
Ask. Vigilant and constant curiosity is important in these times. Take nothing for granted. On Sunday, The Times led with this article: “Malta heading towards ‘all-clear’ from Moneyval”. Great news, news that was immediately echoed by both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader – the former with pride and the latter in evident fear of seeming unpatriotic. Better still, this news broken to us by The Times led to speculation on a possible election should the positive rumours be confirmed.
What could possibly be amiss? For starters, as much as I tried to discover other sources on which the article was based it was clear that there was only one: Government. ‘Government sources’ basically told The Times that they had “received indications” that Malta would pass the next step of Moneyval scrutiny. Turns out these ‘government sources’ were not good at keeping secrets since these indications were contained in what The Times journalist described as ‘a secret document’.
Let us for a moment ignore the fact that on the same day that Malta Today led with a revisiting of Yorgen Fenech’s statements, The Times went for a government-fed piece of positive news. Having read the ‘small print’ in the article I decided to do what the journalist didn’t – investigate beyond the original source.
An expert in the industry confirmed that in the April Moneyval plenary, the Technical Compliance Annex will be reviewed. In simple terms, a while back the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is the big one here, rated Malta as partially compliant in some areas. This Moneyval review checks whether our recently introduced amendments make Malta fully compliant. On paper.
That ‘on paper’ is important because the secret report that the journalist is on about stops right there. It does not look at actual effectiveness. Another source that I spoke to confirmed that it is an open secret that Malta will get its full marks for this stage, which is not a big deal given that it is simply for enacting laws not for putting them into effect.
In June, we will have the big test – the one that counts. That is when FATF comes in, focusing on Malta’s main failings from an effectiveness perspective: supervision, enforcement, convictions, and asset forfeiture. That time round, without a clear political commitment and without clear progress, the Moneyval ok in April will not be worth the paper on which it is written.
That is the crucial moment when we need to avoid the greylisting. Nobody would like that greylisting to happen. It would be too damaging for Malta. What I am focusing on here is the impression given by the Times article at this stage. What use does it have?
What has it done other than give Robert Abela an opportunity to switch focus? Given the ongoing revelations over the last weeks and the government efforts to deviate onto other matters, we can legitimately ask whether this kind of ‘investigative’ reporting is the kind that would be sorely missed.
Every day there are a hundred different lines to follow, a hundred truths to pursue. This is not a simple world of good vs evil or axis vs allies. Not asking questions only makes us silent accomplices, and in the words of Edward Murrow: ‘No one can terrorise a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices’.