Five years ago today, a second and final test was made of the burner phones that would, two months later, detonate the bomb that killed Daphne Caruana Galizia. Think about that as you contemplate the rest of your day.
Stephen Grey’s ‘Who Killed Daphne?’ podcast series will help you imaginatively recreate that period. In his interview with George Degiorgio, the Reuters journalist captured the voice and cackle of one of Caruana Galizia’s alleged assassins.
Grey did more than that. Degiorgio, who still declares his innocence, confessed on the record to taking on the hit job.
It’s a scoop any journalist would be proud of. Grey’s “soft” conversational approach to interviewing led Degiorgio to let down his guard.
We’d probably be saying the same thing if the same technique yielded a scoop from Joseph Muscat, who was also interviewed. But all we heard was the same narrative that Muscat offered to the Caruana Galizia public inquiry and, last year, to Herman Grech (Allied Newspapers).
The soft approach lets Muscat get away with too much. You won’t get anything unless you ask about specifics.
He has now polished his excuses for his behaviour in office, that same behaviour that endangered Caruana Galizia’s life. He offers a bottom line. To paraphrase: “I may have been naive in believing Keith Schembri about 17 Black, but in that case, I paid the highest political price for my naivety and anyway, the police still did their job.”
Muscat has a great interest in boiling things down to a few simple things. He hopes we forget the inconsistency of the details.
Take that simple statement: the police did their job. The former Police Commissioner stands accused of acting highly suspiciously. The former Deputy Police Commissioner is suspected of leaking information to the man now charged with being the mastermind. A former Assistant Commissioner, running the Economic Crimes Unit, is at the centre of allegations that he sat on, if not sabotaged, investigations.
I mention the ranks, not the names, to underline that it was the police leadership that the public inquiry has blamed for endangering Caruana Galizia’s life. By not investigating — if not worse — they made it more tempting for the eventual mastermind(s) to think that killing her was a solution.
The top echelons of the police force couldn’t have been appointed and retained without Muscat’s assent. It’s reasonable to assume that their reluctance to investigate was to spare Keith Schembri, the man Muscat tells us he trusted.
Muscat’s “naivety” is not just a “political price” that he paid. It’s an ingredient contributing to police inaction and the catastrophe.
He’s not some hero with a tragic flaw. Caruana Galizia, her family and the country are the victims of his “naivety”.
What about “the job” that the police are said to have done? Muscat spins even while he affects to give us just the facts.
To say the job was done suggests it’s complete. Is it? Keith Schembri was let off the hook when he claimed to have lost his phone. He was unchallenged when he refused to give the password to his computer. The police left a possible crime scene unattended.
If it seems complete, it’s because not every trail was investigated thoroughly. Now, those trails may be too cold.
Let’s look more closely at Muscat’s “naivety”. You can’t do this without the detailed timeline concerning what Muscat claims he knew about 17 Black, Yorgen Fenech’s Dubai company.
Since it’s Fenech who stands accused of being the mastermind, the relationship of 17 Black to Schembri’s Panama company is critical.
In February 2017, Caruana Galizia uploaded a teasing post called “17 Black — the name of a company incorporated in Dubai”. Newsbook asked Joseph Muscat about it. He said he had no idea.
In April 2018, after the assassination, the Daphne Project unearthed an email linking 17 Black to Schembri, who said it had to do with draft business plans.
In November 2018, Fenech was revealed as the owner of 17 Black. Schembri denied knowing that it belonged to Fenech.
Since then, however, both Schembri and Muscat have admitted that the former told Muscat about Fenech’s ownership some time after the matter came to light in the media. But they’re both evasive about when.
Why? Because any date they choose compromises them.
Was it in 2017, when Caruana Galizia first teasingly mentioned 17 Black? Then Muscat lied to Newsbook.
Was it in April 2018? Or in November that year? Either way, it means Muscat “trusted” a man who, in the same period, lied publicly about the issue. Who would continue to trust such a man?
And why did Muscat let Schembri lie? Muscat told Grey he “trusted” Schembri in part because he “didn’t find anything too strange” about the business plans, ostensibly for Schembri’s post-political life.
If it’s not strange, why lie?
And how credible is it to find nothing strange about a company opened for business to commence many years later? Everyone else finds it strange.
One Cabinet minister after another has testified to telling Muscat the Panama companies were unacceptable.
The Electrogas board, we were told, asked questions. Brian Tonna says he told Schembri he was disgusted. True or not, it reveals that Tonna thinks that any other reaction would beggar belief.
Muscat’s own communications chief, Kurt Farrugia, thought it was unacceptable. When Fenech’s ownership was revealed, he asked Muscat if it was true.
Muscat told Farrugia to ask Schembri. He did. Schembri replied, “Maybe.”
That’s a strange set of evasions for a matter that is itself “not too strange”.
Muscat offered Grey a psychological reason to explain himself:
“My main problem was that she essentially lied about me. […] If I believe everything said in this direction [about 17 Black] then I have to believe a lie that was said about myself.”
It’s not just flawed logic. It’s a flawed timeline. Grey didn’t challenge the timeline implicitly suggested by Muscat: first Egrant, then 17 Black. But Caruana Galizia revealed the existence of 17 Black in February 2017, two months before she broke the Egrant story.
The subsequent 17 Black revelations were by others: The Daphne Project, Reuters with Times of Malta, The Malta Independent, The major revelations came after the assassination.
Several media organisations, local and international, were corroborating what Caruana Galizia had initially said. The successive 17 Black revelations should have made any sensible man wary of Schembri.
Yet, not a single post-assassination revelation, from April 2018 to November 2019, made Muscat review his judgement. On the contrary. Up till the end of his term, Muscat continued to tell us that Schembri was “a man of integrity”.
What makes a man vouch for another whom he knows to be a public liar, with a secret Panama company opened in the first days of public office, with documented plans to receive money from a secret company owned by a prime suspect in an assassination?
Somehow, “naivety” doesn’t seem to be the right word.