Despite Prime Minister Robert Abela’s claims that the European Commission’s rule of law report published on Tuesday confirmed reforms implemented have strengthened Malta’s institutions, the report states that “serious challenges” remain in terms of the efficiency of the justice system, in particular the length of proceedings, the low number of judges, and the lack of an established track record in high-level corruption convictions.
These are just some of the criticisms levied at Malta by the European Commission in the 2021 Rule of Law Report on the situation in Malta, which also addresses the problems in the media landscape in Malta in terms of ownership and the challenges being faced by journalists.
We’re now “boasting” about the reforms of the reforms of the reforms. pic.twitter.com/tu81XEB0CQ
— BugM (@bugdavem) July 21, 2021
The report, published on Tuesday, noted that while some investigative bodies have improved their capacity to deal with corruption, investigations continue to be lengthy. This means that many cases involving politicians and high-level officials remain before the court, setting no example of efficiency.
In terms of reforms related to the Police Commissioner and the Commissioner of the Permanent Commission against Corruption, no results have been observed so far. This is despite the strengthening of the Commission’s independence over the last year.
It adds that resources are limited, there are no in-house investigators or data analysts, and “concerns regarding its capacity to conduct impactful inquiries therefore persist”. In fact, over the last year, only two cases have been forwarded to the Attorney General.
The report states that rules on integrity for public officials, including ministers and MPs have been implemented and eight cases of conflict of interest are being reviewed by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. It continues that “further changes are envisaged.”
Problems were observed in terms of rules of ethics applicable to persons of trust. They were described by the Commissioner as having the potential to be unfeasible and ineffective in their current form.
Mentioning the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the report says there have been developments in separate proceedings related to the case. However, journalists have been hampered when requesting access to information held by the authorities and in their more general work.
Regarding judicial matters, the report said that the level of perceived judicial independence is now “fairly high” at 69% and has improved significantly from 2016 (44%). It noted that the new system of judicial appointments, positively assessed by the Venice Commission, has increased judicial independence in the country.
This increased confidence has been bolstered by the reform of the process for dismissing magistrates and judges and depoliticising the appointment of the Chief Justice.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Attorney General. Safeguards for appointing and removing the person in the role “leave room for strengthening,” according to the report. Despite some changes, “the appointment of the Attorney General remains predominantly under the power of the Prime Minister which has been raised as an issue,” it continues.
One of the main concerns repeatedly highlighted in the report is the length of court proceedings. The typical length of a litigious civil case in 2019 was 465 days, increasing since 2017. The appeal time was even longer at 875 days.
In money laundering cases, the average length was 1,350 days, and “serious concerns about the efficiency of the Maltese justice system were raised by stakeholders”.
These delays were further exacerbated by the pandemic and by a “relatively low number of judges and magistrates”. Malta has the lowest number of judges per capita in the European Union.
In terms of corruption, as stated in the 2020 Rule of Law report, “the ongoing investigation and separate public inquiry into the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have unveiled deep corruption patterns and raised a strong societal demand for significantly strengthening the capacity to tackle corruption and carrying out wider rule of law reform.”
#MALTA: Today we went to @MaltaPolice HQ to remind police chief about the long list of #untouchables that includes @JosephMuscat_JM, who have yet to answer for their crimes. #Impunity still reigns & #continuity with Muscat’s #corrupt govt is still @RobertAbela_MT's no. 1 priority pic.twitter.com/66nsdnjUDb
— repubblika 🇲🇹 #JusticeForDaphne 🌿 (@repubblikaMT) July 20, 2021
This was noted again in this year’s report. It found that while investigative and prosecution bodies have improved their capacity to deal with corruption, investigations are lengthy, and convictions are yet to be established.
The Passport Papers investigation, carried out by The Shift, the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and a consortium involving national and international newsrooms, was also mentioned. The report stated that the investigation “raised doubts about applicants’ compliance for the individual investor programme with the programme’s requirements.”
It continued that the EC had launched infringement procedures against Malta concerning both the new and the previous programme and its compliance with EU law.
When it comes to the media, the report details persisting concerns over political ownership and influence over the work of several media outlets and broadcasters.
The report states that the two main political parties effectively control, own, or manage a number of outlets including online portals. This results in a situation whereby the parties “actively contribute towards shaping the working environment for journalists,” and their media are “a major influence on public discourse.”
Political influence on the media in Malta has been described as “at acute high risk,” and the Broadcasting Authority remains populated by political appointees.
Journalists in the country continue to face several challenges, namely strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Many of these threats are related to investigations conducted by Daphne Caruana Galizia and work carried out by journalists following her assassination.