The stories that stuck: The Shift team describes 2023’s most memorable stories

Many journalists will tell you that they are motivated by, among other things, the opportunity to pursue stories that can have a lasting impact and contribute to the public good. But what about the stories that impact the journalist?

Here’s what members of The Shift’s team replied when asked, “What has been the most impactful or memorable story you’ve covered this year, and why?”

 Caroline Muscat

The hospital heist story. A year of work with OCCRP and Times of Malta and the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation where we discovered the intricate web of corruption around the deal and the players involved.

We entered a virtual house of mirrors when we stepped into that investigation. We found more lawyers than you can shake a stick at, private investigators sowing disinformation, apparent coordination between parties who claimed to be at war, computers breaking down at the last minute, and a crook turned whistleblower after feeling the heat. We sifted through all this as an international team of investigative journalists, brought you the facts backed by evidence, and ignored a thousand distractions thrown our way.

Building on five years of research and stories, our investigation was confirmed by the Court of Appeals that ruled, in a hard-hitting decision, that the deal was ‘a simulation’ intended to pass funds from state coffers to private persons rather than benefit Maltese healthcare. The Court confirmed that it was the politicians that benefitted.

Disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat is now feeling the heat of a magisterial inquiry, scared it will reveal his dealings. We’ll be back with more on this when the time comes”.

The joint investigation discovered that disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s consultancy contract with a Swiss company is suspected of funnelling public money back to the investors behind Vitals Global Health Care Group (VGH), now under intense scrutiny by investigators. 

We discovered that the companies involved in the hospital’s concession deal sent at least €7 million to Accutor. This Swiss payroll company played a crucial role in funnelling funds between investors.  We discovered that those same investors spent millions of euros living large while the hospitals under their care were virtually ignored.

Sean Montebello

“Writing about the several mismanaged, overbudget and past-their-deadline Sport Malta projects meant to be completed in time for the small nation’s games held in June.

It was a funny period where the minute you finished writing about one failed project, you learned about the next one, which meant driving all around Malta looking at multi-million-euro construction sites that were far from completion.”

During May, The Shift revealed the various unfinished projects in Malta, including an incomplete €16 million pool in Victoria, Gozo, a €3 million tennis complex in Pembroke that was still in its initial phase, and a €9 million indoor squash and weightlifting complex in Marsa that was yet to have its foundations laid.

The fourth unfinished project is the €14 million Cottonera Sports Complex indoor pool slated for use during the 2023 Games, forcing athletes and GSSE staff to use the ad-hoc replacement Tal-Qroqq built in 1993.  Additionally, the in-fighting between Sports Minister Clifton Grima and SportMalta CEO Mark Cutajar only made things worse, according to government sources who spoke to The Shift.

Alice Taylor

Reporting on the European Media Freedom Act, meant to protect journalists, improve their conditions, reinforce media freedom, and see Malta backing draconian measures. A government spokesperson pressured me to change my reporting line just because he said so, and I was lectured on ‘real journalism’ and accused of fake reporting. At the same time, he refused to go on record to clarify exactly what was ‘fake’ or to deny the contents of the official document I had. I politely told him that unless he was prepared to go on record, I would not change the article.

“He also criticised that we hadn’t asked for comment, despite the fact I haven’t had an answer from them for the best part of a decade, and they consistently withhold information from the media. Not to mention the 40 frivolous court cases they filed against The Shift following Freedom of Information requests – it seemed a bit rich for him to be saying this, considering the context.”

The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is new legislation that seeks to regulate the European media landscape and protect media freedom and journalists. It has been under negotiations for 15 months and was set to be concluded by mid-December.

In mid-December, official minutes from a November European Council meeting seen by The Shift show that Italy, France, Finland, Greece, Cyprus, Sweden, and Malta all insisted on retaining a paragraph that provided a caveat to a ban on spying on journalists. Following the uproar, the text was eventually passed without the controversial clause.

Elizabeth De Gaetano

“The story that stayed with me most this year was writing about the unforgivably slow response by the government to address the issue of domestic violence in Malta. I often research and write about the government’s half-baked responses to recommendations by international bodies. And yet, I could not believe that the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Meeting (MARAM) system to help survivors of domestic violence was finally set up this year but had been in the works since 2017.

When I am reminded that the party in government seems to find endless taxpayer funds for glitzy film festivals, phantom jobs, and consultancies but not for equipping the police force, the law courts and the relevant agencies to help a vulnerable section of society better, I wonder why it still bothers to brand itself socialist.”

Following the death of Bernice Cassar, who was killed on her way to work, despite having filed multiple reports against her estranged husband, the government launched an independent inquiry to establish whether any state institutions failed to prevent her killing.

In his conclusions, Judge Geoffery Valenzia noted, among other things, that the entire system for handling domestic violence cases did not work as it should and did not protect those repeatedly asking for protection.

On the first anniversary of Cassar’s death, legal professionals who spoke to The Shift underscored that survivors of domestic violence still face waits of over a year for court proceedings to start due to severe backlogs, with cases filed in 2023 scheduled to begin in court in 2025, despite promises and ‘apologies’ by Prime Minister Robert Abela.

                           

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