That the government was about to embark on a PR onslaught to mitigate the possible outcome of the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) decision was palpable even before the inter-governmental watchdog announced its decision.
It started with a whisper
The murmurs started a few days before the FATF was about to decide whether Malta should be designated as a ‘Jurisdiction under Increased Monitoring’ (commonly known as greylisting), when the Minister of Finance, Clyde Caruana, uploaded a Facebook post where he wrote that should the technical process be hampered by political motives, this would not be fair to the serious work that had been done by government.
He also mentions that despite Malta’s small size, it is still a sovereign state and that just as other countries protect their interests, so too will Malta. And that was it. In this short post were all the elements needed for government officials, propagandists, trolls, and angry men of the internet, to pick up, amplify and spin as they pleased: political motives, foreign powers, unfairness, Malta’s size, Malta’s sovereignty, and a picture of the Maltese flag to boot.
Haiti, Malta, Philippines and South Sudan have entered the FATF’s Jurisdictions under Increased Monitoring list, often referred to as the 'grey list'. See the full update here ➡️ https://t.co/qadWFIyIqd #FollowTheMoney pic.twitter.com/7tVwtgl1Uh
— FATF (@FATFNews) June 25, 2021
Even before the FATF voted on the issue, government whip Glenn Bedingfield and Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo were already echoing parts of Caruana’s original post. The same day that Caruana published his social media post, Bedingfield went on to speak in parliament where he accused members of the Opposition of “choosing to side with foreigners”.
Bedingfield was referring to a letter sent to the FATF by Opposition Leader Bernard Grech, a questionable move that provided the government and its mouthpieces with more ammunition for their propaganda.
Evarist Bartolo also started rather mildly when he said in an interview that Malta did not deserve to be greylisted and that the government had done its utmost to avoid this situation. But as the date of the final vote on Malta’s status approached, and it was becoming evident that some countries remained unconvinced by Malta’s “utmost”, Bartolo’s tone changed and, in a Facebook post turned on the ‘big countries’ writing that they “have ways of getting away with murder”.
He added: “Pathetic, to say the least, when you find small islanders with no self-respect siding with the big countries against their own countries”.
The decision to greylist Malta was taken on 23 June.
Although the official announcement and press briefing by the FATF would not be held until two days later, high-ranking government officials made use of their preferred channels to announce the outcome, prompting Prime Minister Robert Abela to call a press conference and further cultivate the narrative his finance minister had seeded. He described the FATF’s decision as “unjust” and that Malta did not deserve this outcome.
This narrative was gaining such traction that by the time FATF president Marcus Pleyer made his official announcement on Friday, he already had stern words for Malta’s government officials and insisted that local authorities “must not downplay the importance of these measures”, referring to media reports that indicated the government was not happy with the FATF’s decision.
Despite Pleyer’s clear stand on the matter, the “unjust” narrative was supplemented with ‘insider information’ published in The Times of Malta that described how an overwhelming majority of countries were against Malta being subjected to increased monitoring, but that Malta’s efforts were thwarted by three influential countries (Germany, UK, USA) and that therefore a consensus could not be reached. It exposed a lack of understanding of what ‘consensus’ means.
The concept of ‘consensus’ is a slippery one because although no formal vote is taken, participants are asked to indicate their level of agreement with a proposal, each interested party explains why they agree or disagree with the proposal but, ultimately, the final decision is deemed agreeable to all involved and implicit approval is unanimous even though the actual level of agreement may not be the same for all.
In short, the countries that did not agree with greylisting Malta would have still approved the decision to do so even if they didn’t necessarily agree with it, but it is also easy to see how this nuance can be manipulated.
More rhetoric and assurances are likely to follow. Robert Abela recently went on the Labour Party television to state that Malta will emerge from this crisis as a more effective and attractive jurisdiction; Finance Minister Clyde Caruana reiterated his boss’ words in parliament and is even reported to have said that that the government would not cry over spilt milk, could not turn the clock back and would now move ahead to remedy the situation.
This was yet another missed opportunity, or, more precisely, another deliberate attempt to sweep some unpalatable things under the carpet, because among all the talking and posturing, that one crucial element – the shouldering of responsibility – remains sorely absent.