Opinion: Shadow bans and shady people

What is it with Malta and shady people? The country attracts the seriously shifty like an all-you-can-eat buffet attracts gluttons.

During the Joseph Muscat years, a rogue’s gallery of fraudsters, smugglers, oligarchs and money launderers came to Malta in search of citizenship, drawn by lax golden passport and visa schemes.

The Italian mafia came to clean its cash through online gaming, and cryptocurrency kings came in search of a similar unregulated free-for-all pimped by the government as Blockchain Island.

They were joined by tuna launderers, fuel smugglers, arms dealers and human traffickers.

Even the medical profession got in on this highway robbery, thanks in no small part to former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri, who allegedly greased the VGH wheels so Shaukat Ali’s family could fleece Maltese taxpayers of millions while Schembri’s alphabet soup of offshore companies grew rich from lucrative goods and services contracts linked to the deal. 

The magisterial inquiry into the fraudulent hospitals concession stressed that the primary goal of the key players was to sell as soon as possible, probably packaged with hospitals in other territories, for a multi-million-euro capital gain.

So lucrative was this shady deal that the people involved were willing to go to just about any lengths to protect it.

As the situation spiralled out of control, concession owner Steward Healthcare hired high-priced private spies to target the Health Minister of a European Union Member State for his frustrating ‘by the book’ adherence to the contract they had signed with the Maltese government.

Chris Fearne was accused of accepting a €3.2 million bribe in exchange for helping secure a Maltese passport for the brother of an advisor to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The allegation was backed by a copy of a bank record that experts consulted by the OCCRP described as a “clumsy and inexpert” fake.

Despite his outrage at the damage to his reputation, Fearne is far from a saint in this story. He called the takeover by Steward “the real deal”, but his true feelings may have slipped out on an episode of Conflict Zone. Journalist Tim Sebastian asked him about Vitals Global Healthcare, saying “The shadow health minister said the deal stank of corruption. Why did you sign such an enormous deal with a company that was totally untested in this field?”

“I didn’t sign the deal myself…” Fearne replied. “The government signed that deal”. 

He was quick to wash his hands of the decision — he didn’t want it attributed to him — but then bumbled through justifications for his government having done so.

Toeing the party line didn’t protect Fearne, and it didn’t protect Maltese citizens, either. As Steward’s unpaid bills piled up — according to the OCCRP investigation, some $2 million in critical costs in June 2020 alone, including doctors’ fees, wound-care services, medical supplies and pest control — the embattled healthcare company charged the costs of its shady reputation management campaign to Steward Malta Management Limited, sticking the Maltese taxpayer with the bill.

Steward also targeted non-Maltese opponents who dared to investigate it, staking out homes, placing trackers on cars, and spying on citizens in their homes. They even hired private spies to collect embarrassing personal information and photographs of a former employee they feared might blow the whistle on them.

During all this time, former cardiac surgeon turned Steward CEO Ralph de la Torre was travelling the world in bomb-proof cars and corporate jets, with his own private security detail and a $40 million superyacht called Amaral.

This is how the mafia acts.

You’d think the people being fleeced would turn against their homegrown political facilitators when the full scope of this highway robbery was revealed, but you would be wrong. In the topsy-turvy Bizarro world of Malta, getting caught only seems to increase one’s support.

When disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat was charged with bribery, corruption and money laundering in connection with the VGH scandal, citizens didn’t fill Valletta to scream, “Shame on you!” Instead, they cheered him on. 

One demonstrator said to a Times of Malta reporter, “I think he’s innocent, and even if he isn’t […] I used to get a €570 pension, now I make over €900.” Another compared Muscat’s trial to the crucifixion, saying, “This is a repetition of Christ’s story.”

Such responses aren’t mere byproducts of a bizarre Labour Party cult of personality centred on the disgraced former prime minister. Two mayors charged with money laundering, usury and misappropriation of public funds sailed through local council elections last month with an even larger share of the vote than they’d gotten in the previous election.

Getting arrested and convicted for such crimes isn’t a badge of shame in Malta. It’s just bad luck.

According to Luca Raineri of the Department of Law and Politics at the Sant’ Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Malta’s “economic and political elites seem to look at the proliferation of victimless forms of crime such as money laundering and fuel smuggling less as a threat than as an opportunity”. And there’s always someone in a position of power willing to help for a cut.

The laundry list of scum and villainy drawn to Joseph Muscat’s Malta is the reason I called my recent book A Sunny Place for Shady People — but don’t look for it on a shelf near you. You won’t be able to find it. It’s been cast into a patch of shade all its own.

My book was published in April — more than two months ago — but it isn’t available in the country I wrote about despite selling well on Amazon. Industry contacts tell me it isn’t being offered to local outlets, let alone sold there, and this may be deliberate. Ordering from abroad remains the only way for Maltese readers to get their hands on it.

I remember hearing about similar problems with ‘Invicta: The Life and Writing of Daphne Caruana Galizia’. In those highly charged months after a massive car bomb killed Malta’s leading investigative journalist, Caruana Galizia’s haters and political opponents tried to stop this book about her work from reaching readers through typical shadow ban strategies like removing copies from bookstore shelves or hiding them behind other volumes.

Can’t stand the message? Discredit, block, or shadow-ban the messenger.

It’s a tactic favoured by shady people everywhere — not coming soon to a bookstore near you.


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8 days ago

Good to see you’re still alive and kicking, yep, you got it right NOTHING has changed at all. However live in hope, this latest bit of grunge whereby “Dark Forces” vis a vis “The Establishment” have paid for the bismirching of two stalwart overpaid heads of the medical system, has opened an internal can of worms, (long overdue). The Dog eat Dog syndrome has erupted and I would bet some more will come out of the slime and offer their bits in the hope of avoiding prosecution. In reality none, if any will be convicted of anything through time barring , death, witnesses recanting, intimidation, incompetence, or just vanishing. Anyway i’m off to home Scotland soon, it’s going to be a shock to look at the horizon and not see a crane or take two hours to travel two miles.
Good read enjoyed it, get Caroline to promote your book here , it will piss off a lot of people who can read and write.

joe tedesco
joe tedesco
8 days ago


S. Camilleri
S. Camilleri
8 days ago

A heart wrenching but accurate read. “like an all-you-can-eat buffet attracts gluttons”: What an apposite metaphor! Reminds me of the film “La Grande Bouffe”. They have made of our islands an unrestrained bacchanalian feast for themselves. Shame on all of you, and on those who put you in power to be able to make use of the services of all the lowlifes you engaged to help you bring the goal of your roadmap to fruition.

8 days ago

Dear Ryan, going through the history books one will note that piracy and looting is ingrained in the DNA of most Maltese. Way before even Christ was born. Don’t expect any changes now.

8 days ago

You left out Addolorata! Fearne and Tonna involved in that.

A. Fan
A. Fan
8 days ago

Welcome back Ryan!

I particularly enjoyed your opening simile. So true.

But what’s the answer (maybe I just just missed it)?

Why do people keep voting for obvious crooks out to rob the nation?

I blame it on a woeful educational system that fails to promote critical thinking; how about you?

A. Fan
A. Fan
8 days ago
Reply to  Ryan Murdock

I’ll see if I can somehow acquire a copy.

Meanwhile, hope to keep seeing more of your writing on The Shift.

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