When reports emerged that on 8 September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had held the first meeting to discuss MP Rosianne Cutajar’s breach of code of conduct, Cutajar reacted in the same, predictable way most government officials tend to respond to allegations of wrongdoing; by digging in their heels and reframing the demand for accountability into an attack on themselves and therefore, the nation.
In April this year, Pieter Omtzigt requested that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) “looks into” whether the behaviour of Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar was in violation of the code of conduct when she criticised his report on Malta and defended the controversial Electrogas deal, only for her close relationship with Electrogas shareholder Yorgen Fenech to be exposed later.
In a Facebook post, Cutajar responded by saying: “Attacks by Omtzigt and Jason Azzopardi’s foreign friends continue,” she wrote. “I will not be intimidated. I will continue to defend Malta’s name both in my country and at a European level”.
There is so much to unpack in such a short sentence.
Tired old tricks
First, she deploys the “foreigners” card, a tried and tested disinformation trick that works well when rallying support by feigning that Malta is under some sort of external attack. This is similar to the idea that anyone critical of the government or its officials is a ‘traitor’ or an “enemy of the people”, more so if you voice this criticism in an international setting because, according to this description, your mission is not to hold the government to account or for your country to do better, but to ‘speak against Malta’ and tarnish the country’s reputation.
Moreover, by claiming that she is being “attacked” by “Omzigt and Jason Azzopardi’s foreign friends” – a claim she reinforced by attaching a photo of Pieter Omtzigt talking with Azzopardi to her Facebook post – what she is in fact doing is singling out two individuals and in turn, setting them up as targets for attacks by her supporters.
She also used another routine ploy by turning the government and the State into one. This allowed her to reject any criticism of her as an attack on the nation itself, hence her claim she will “defend Malta’s name”. It is her name, whatever is left of it, that she needs to defend in front of the Council of Europe, not Malta’s, but let’s not get too bogged down in details.
The European level
Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt, was the Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and was tasked with looking into the investigation into the journalist’s assassination. His report was presented to the Parliamentary Assembly on 26 June 2019.
Following the presentation of the report, the Parliamentary Assembly went on to vote on a resolution that was also put forward by Omtzigt. The resolution was adopted with an overwhelming majority of 72 to 18, with 3 abstentions. It called on the government of Malta to establish “at the earliest opportunity, within three months, an independent public inquiry in order to ensure fulfillment of its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
It also called on the government to implement as a matter of urgency the Rule of Law reform packages recommended by the Venice Commission and GRECO.
During the parliamentary debate, prior to the vote, most members of the assembly praised Omtzigt’s report that outlined in great detail the extent of Malta’s rule of law deficiencies. On the other hand, Manuel Mallia (now High Commissioner to the UK) questioned the need for an immediate public inquiry into the assassination and insinuated that the Council of Europe relied on newspaper reports to claim the murder investigation was not moving forward.
When it was Rosianne Cutajar’s turn to address the assembly, she too used the time allotted to undermine both the report and the draft resolution first by claiming that the rule of law issues outlined in the draft resolution went beyond the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s report and then by claiming that the draft resolution contained serious errors. To date, this is the only speech she gave as a Council of Europe representative since she was appointed in 2017.
A motley crew of dissent
Mallia and Cutajar were not alone in voicing their dissent in 2019. The Azerbaijani delegation was out in full force during the plenary debate on the report and resolution, with as many as four out of 20 total speaking slots taken by Azerbaijani MPs who positioned Omtzigt’s report as an attempt to use the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia to attack their country. At the time, observers noted what a strange response this was, coming from a country that wasn’t even the subject of the report.
Given everything we now know about Malta’s links with Azerbaijan, and the consequences of these links, perhaps this staunch objection to draft resolution on Malta’s rule of law by the Azerbaijani delegation was not so surprising after all. The same can be said for Cutajar.
The most infuriating part of her two-line defiance is not the hackneyed partisan rhetoric, it is the implication that the speech she gave at the Council of Europe was her way of coming to Malta’s defence.
The resolution Cutajar rallied against did not just address the need to set up an independent public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which in itself was of profound importance. It also concluded that the rule of law in Malta was seriously undermined by the extreme weakness of its system of checks and balances. So much so that the reforms that followed have been touted by Prime Minister Robert Abela and Minister for Justice Edward Zammit Lewis as examples of the current administration’s greatest achievements.
Not wanting your country to improve its checks and balances, not wanting justice to be sought for the murder of a journalist, doesn’t sound like a defence of Malta at all, it sounds very much like the opposite.