The noise surrounding allegations against Carmen Ciantar, coupled with Joseph Muscat’s bluster on the Vitals Global Healthcare magisterial inquiry, remains couched in terms of ‘he said, she said’ encouraged by the authorities’ lack of investigative action.
But what’s the truth?
Surrounded as we are with a barrage of conflicting information, it’s worth remembering that disinformation tactics are often used simultaneously to confuse and exhaust readers.
Several such tactics are likely being used to discredit and divert attention from the ugly details that have emerged from joint investigations into the VGH hospitals’ deal conducted by The Shift and The Times of Malta with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The primary purpose of such disinformation is to sow doubt through a mixture of facts and fabrication. Yet there are patterns, and red flags that should set off your bullshit detector.
Behind the scenes of a year-long investigation
First, did you not question why the journalists involved in the international investigation were not the ones to carry these Carmen Ciantar claims?
Why would a questionable website in Pakistan suddenly have ‘documents’ a few days after two Pakistanis were exposed in our joint investigation as receiving funds from the VGH deal or transferring funds to Joseph Muscat?
Such investigations are, by their nature, international collaborations because they involve cross-border corruption. The investigation took a year of checking and cross-checking and finding additional evidence to support the facts.
Documents don’t fall out of the sky on an obscure Pakistani website. Even acquiring the documents is a lengthy process built on trust. There’s a reason why they are given to credible journalists with solid track records.
We know. We’ve been there.
The Shift is exercising caution in connection with the stories about Carmen Ciantar and her daughter because we knew what was happening behind the scenes.
When we stepped into that investigation, we stepped into a virtual house of mirrors. More lawyers than you can shake a stick at, private investigators sowing disinformation, apparent coordination between parties who claim to be at war, computers breaking down at the last minute, and a crook turned whistleblower after feeling the heat.
We sifted and sorted through all of this as an international team of investigative journalists. We brought you the facts backed by evidence and ignored the thousand and one distractions thrown our way.
And that’s perhaps why the Chris Fearne-Carmen Ciantar ‘scoop’ emanating from Pakistan shortly after the publication of our investigation failed to impress or detract us. It looked all too familiar.
All the elements of a possible hit piece
A series of similar articles appear in obscure Pakistani news sites and accuse Deputy PM Chris Fearne’s aide Carmen Ciantar of being involved in significant corruption connected to the VGH deal.
The reports appear almost exclusively in Pakistani media, and each website republishes the same ‘news’ article word-for-word, sometimes with a different photograph.
This is a tactic commonly used in an aggressive approach by PR companies to promote a client’s messages, change and control the narrative and distort the truth.
Despite the seriousness of the allegations against Ciantar, no known journalist has claimed credit for this so-called scoop, and, crucially, no documents or even extracts from documents have been produced to back the claims.
The stories use several links, including links to reports by The Shift, to try and add legitimacy. While our articles are factual and backed by concrete evidence clearly explained to our readers, the reports in Pakistan layer on several unfounded allegations that only confuse readers about what is fact and what is fiction.
That’s an obvious disinformation tactic.
There are also glaring errors, such as the claim that Konrad Mizzi is still an independent MP or Malta is still on the FATF’s grey list.
In addition to Pakistan, a Ukrainian website inaccessible from Malta published a report claiming that an Austria-based businessman with close links to Russian oligarch Leonid Levitin had transferred €3.2 million to Carmen Ciantar’s daughter Celine – an allegation she denies.
The article was reprinted in the EU Reporter, only to be taken down shortly afterwards.
Such stories’ proliferation and amplification go beyond simply trying to discredit Carmen Ciantar and, by extension, Fearne. The reports also make it seem like a year-long investigation by OCCRP, The Shift, and The Times of Malta had somehow missed some crucial pieces of the puzzle.
The choice of Pakistani news websites is also noteworthy. Shaukat Ali, a Pakistani businessman, is believed to be one of the brains behind the fraudulent multi-billion dollar hospitals concession and one of the signatories to a sketchy 2014 memorandum of understanding that preceded the concession by a year.
Like Shaukat Ali, there is also the Pakistani businessman Wasay Bhatti, who owns Accutor AG and Spring X Media. The joint international investigation revealed that these two Swiss-based companies transferred tens of thousands of euros in “consultancy fees” to disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
Importantly, these allegations are currently being used by Joseph Muscat to help discredit the magisterial inquiry into the hospitals’ deal and have the magistrate recused.
The timing seems perfect, right?
Judiciary yes, judiciary no
On Thursday, Muscat took the stand in court to argue for removing Magistrate Gabriella Vella from the inquiry looking into the Vitals hospitals’ deal. Earlier, he laid the groundwork for his appearance in court by conceding to an ‘interview’ with Labour propagandist Emanuel Cuschieri, describing the magistrate’s inquiry as a “dirty game”.
He also threatened to sue “those who have fomented it”. He described his critics as “Freemasons” well connected to members of the judiciary – the same judiciary, incidentally, that his administration packed with political appointees.
This is after he complained that the police search of his home earlier this year in connection with the VGH inquiry was “theatrics”.
This is hardly the first time Muscat has had the gall to lecture members of the judiciary on how they should be operating.
His speech to the Board of the public inquiry looking into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia dripped with arrogance and disdain.
In another instance, Muscat had no qualms about exerting pressure on the Egrant inquiring magistrate Aaron Bugeja with statements that the Chamber of Advocates said “went beyond all limits of prudence and responsibility“.
Should this not be abundantly clear, we’re not saying that Carmen Ciantar and Chris Fearne are blameless in the whole sordid hospitals’ deal.
But we should be dealing with facts, not conjecture created to suit the financial interests of some disgraced individual with their back up against the wall.
Ciantar has asked for an investigation… twice. In previous scandals, we saw absolute denial until journalists got their hands on evidence and started to reveal the facts.
Remember that when it comes to the VGH deal, they said for years there was nothing wrong – until the mountain of evidence revealed by journalists exposed their wrongdoing.
Now, the line is ‘yes, it’s dirty, but it wasn’t me, it was the other one’.
The reports on the VGH / Steward deal were by real journalists with actual names published after a year-long international collaborative investigation, while these more recent quickly-crafted articles from more than dubious sources bear all the hallmarks of a classic PR hit job.
Look for the red flags. And when they appear, ask who stands to gain.
And then consider: Where are our prime minister and police commissioner on all of this? Their silence, after all, makes them seem unwilling or unable to do their job.