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Michael Falzon

Living in interesting times

What was touted to be Malta’s best ever Cabinet has been practically decimated within three years of its formation.

Michael Falzon
12 April 2016, 8:26am
Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi - every citizen has the right to make such a complaint and since in this country all citizens have equal rights, Zammit had every right to make his complaint
Shadow justice minister Jason Azzopardi - every citizen has the right to make such a complaint and since in this country all citizens have equal rights, Zammit had every right to make his complaint
It is said that there is a greeting purporting to be an ‘old Chinese curse’ saying: May you live in interesting times. The Chinese origin of this expression is doubtful but there is no doubt as to its meaning. It is an ironic statement with the clear implication that ‘uninteresting times’ – of peace and serenity – are more life-enhancing than interesting ones.

We are indeed living in an interesting time.

On the local front, what was touted to be Malta’s best ever Cabinet has been practically decimated within three years of its formation. Old timers like Karmenu Vella and Marie Loiuse Coleiro Preca were kicked upstairs. Manuel Mallia had to resign after his driver’s shooting incident. Godfrey Farrugia lost his Health portfolio and preferred to move out rather than taking over something else. Michael Falzon – who was picked as a substitute  and not in the original line-up – had to resign after the Gaffarena expropriation mess. Is the same fate looming over the cabinet’s bright star, Minister Konrad Mizzi, involved, as he is, in the international Panama Papers leak?

I am already hearing voices saying that I, of all people, am not the one to judge Konrad Mizzi’s action and so I will not. However I feel the need to state two facts: I opened my (now closed) Swiss bank account eight and a half years before being appointed minister when I had some professional work abroad and when the idea of my becoming a minister some day was far-fetched. Those times were also very interesting! Konrad Mizzi set up his New Zealand trust and Panamanian company two years after being appointed minister.

On the international front, the Panama Papers have been making news in other countries as well. The papers have revealed financial arrangements of prominent figures, including friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and relatives of the prime ministers of Britain and Pakistan and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In fact, the leak has hit politicians and friends, footballers and celebrities all over the world. Europeans political leaders, from Iceland to Ukraine, are already suffering the consequences.

Governments across the world have begun investigating possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful after the leak of more than 11.5 million documents, dubbed the Panama Papers, from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

In the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, the French Finance Minister has decided to reinstate Panama on France’s “black list” of countries that do not cooperate in efforts to track down tax dodgers.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also had his moment of embarrassment: A political row erupted because of an investment fund – set up by his late father – which was registered in the Bahamas to shield it from UK tax. Apparently this trust also had some Panamanian connections. Cameron’s record as PM actually shows that he has championed efforts to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding offshore investments, in speeches at international summits and introduced legislation requiring British companies to disclose their ownership and beneficiaries. 

However, British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories have proved reluctant to fully open up their business registers to UK law enforcement agencies. This is leading to Britain being accused of hypocrisy when one observes what happens on the international financial front in places like the Channel islands, the Isle of Man, the British Virgin Islands and other places over which Britain has the ultimate sovereignty. This is why Rachel Davies, the head of UK advocacy and research at Transparency International UK, has said: “The Panama Papers have confirmed that the UK is a prime location for corrupt individuals looking to hide their illicit wealth and buy their way into respectability.”

The Panama Papers revelations have continued to mount pressure on everyone to come clean with his or her finances. Unfortunately although such ‘secret’ funds could have money coming from a clean source, they are also used to hide money earned from illegal sources such as drugs and weapons. These funds could also be used to finance terrorism.

It is obvious that the days of secret funds held in obscure places will soon be over.

And life will become less interesting...

Much ado about nothing 

Last Wednesday, former minister and Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi was arraigned by the police following a complaint by former Police Commissioner Peter Paul Zammit who took umbrage at what Azzopardi had said about him in a press conference.

This is normal procedure when an individual citizen makes a formal complaint (kwerela) to the Police against another citizen. It is used in the case of a complaint about libel and about any offence that is on the criminal statute book, such as when neighbours disturb each other by throwing dirty water in the street or disturbing the peace by shouting too much.

Unfortunately, there has been too much shouting about this case on the PN’s part. 

The idea that Zammit was spurred to do this complaint by the powers that be is, at best, pure speculation. Every citizen has the right to make such a complaint and since in this country all citizens have equal rights, Zammit had very right to make this complaint. Which left the Police with no option but to proceed and accuse Azzopardi with criminal libel. Whether Azzopardi is guilty or not, is another issue that will be decided by the court

The PN made a silly shortsighted attempt claiming that Zammit’s exercise of his right to make a complaint was a veiled attack on democracy and that Azzopardi’s arraignment was part of the campaign to shut up the PN.

Unfortunately, criminal libel has been used over and over again. Sometimes it was the administration’s way to curtail uncomfortable criticism and, in my days, it was as common as daily bread.

Why the PN should take exception to it in this particular case beats me. It is stupidly crying wolf when the wolf is lurking elsewhere. In fact all the PN rhetoric about this case is much ado about nothing.

The system of instituting criminal libel by making a formal complaint to the Police has existed since time immemorial and depicting Azzopardi and the PN as victims for the cause of democracy is absolute nonsense, as far as this case is concerned. 

Personally, I agree with removing criminal libel from the statute books, but this would then apply to everybody.

If our MPs think the system is wrong, they have the duty to change it.

[email protected]

Michael Falzon is a former government minister who served under several Nationalist admini...
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