An institutional failure

While correct journalism demands the publication of documentation and proof, proper governance demands prompt rather than delayed action

24 April 2017, 9:32am
 At that stage it was clear that proper governance demanded a full transparent investigation, a police investigation into a predicate offence, and the appointment of an independent inquiry into the Panamagate affair
At that stage it was clear that proper governance demanded a full transparent investigation, a police investigation into a predicate offence, and the appointment of an independent inquiry into the Panamagate affair
There can be no doubt that Malta is facing its most serious institutional crisis in recent years. 

It is also a crisis unlike most others, in that the allegations made public to date – although supported by circumstantial evidence – remain technically unproven. This has created a groundswell of uncertainty around the very roots of the affair: those predisposed to believe Daphne Caruana Galizia’s claims feel vindicated; those eager to dismiss them as fabrications feel they have enough leeway to do so.

Closure, under such circumstances, becomes impossible. Something has got to give.

Certainly such serious allegations cannot be just argued away as ‘lies’: readers will justifiably doubt the extent to which such detailed revelations could possibly be a fiction concocted by Caruana Galizia.

If this was really a fabricated script, it is hard to think that it would be writing itself out in this manner: especially since the narrative is laced with plausible nuggets of typical culprits, a dramatis personae from the world of the Caspian Corleones, the Azerbaijani first family.

Ultimately, it is also a battle of perceptions. The police chief finding time for a rabbit supper at a restaurant was tragi-comical manna from the skies. The image of the Pilatus Bank chairman emerging from the bank at night carrying his luggage gave a suspicious tint to proceedings. It did not play out well. But the next day we learnt he had just flew into Malta and had gone straight to the bank; and that a private jet to Azerbaijan that same night had been a ferry flight carrying no passengers. Assumptions can lead us to erroneous conclusions.

However, even when proof is presented, the Labour administration is bound to claim it has been falsified – so we are entering into a new battle of perceptions, and a battle of truth versus the semblance of truth.

Certainly we have to keep our wits about us: allegations have been made without documentation provided. That is not the ideal road for journalism to go down. And Caruana Galizia may be a partisan entity, but she has also uncovered embarrassing and damning facts about Labour in power. That is motivated by her mission to bring down Labour should not cloud the importance of evidence coming to light.

But part of the reason that conjectures are now running wild, is also due to an institutional failure to investigate. Last year, the Prime Minister decided to retain Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in spite of the Panama revelations. He ignored speculation on ownership of Egrant. Nexia BT was never investigated. At that stage it was clear that proper governance demanded a full transparent investigation, a police investigation into a predicate offence, and the appointment of an independent inquiry into the Panamagate affair.

This institutional paralysis, coupled with the question of why Mizzi and Schembri were retained, inevitably fed speculation of all sorts. So did Mizzi’s attempt to derail the media by revealing his trust in New Zealand before it emerged that he had a Panama company.

The launch of a magisterial inquiry now, and limited to the latest claim, is a step in right direction, because it allows a full-blown investigation of the latest and most damning allegations.

Of course, the latest allegation cannot be seen in isolation. The magisterial inquiry will not redress what kept Panamagate alive and kicking. We may now have unfortunately reached a point where people are basing their judgement on perception, simply because facts established last year were conveniently ignored.

And if allegations made by Caruana Galizia do turn out to be a fabrication based on linking plausible dots, we would be faced with a brazen attempt to distort public opinion with enormous consequences on democracy.

But if these allegations are true, the Prime Minister would have been caught out in a historically gargantuan lie; his only way to remain in power would be to continue to lie. The consequences on democracy would be lethal.

In this context, while correct journalism demands the publication of documentation and proof, proper governance demands prompt rather than delayed action.

Lastly, Malta’s relationship with Azerbaijan is now firmly in the spotlight. While every country has to deal with countries with a poor record in governance, especially when this is dictated by geography – which is not the case with Azerbaijan – it is also imperative that such relations are scrutinised and all dealings are made out in the open. 

The fact that Malta’s energy supply is now intertwined with the fortunes of SOCAR, owned by a ruling family known for corrupt dealings, inevitably raises legitimate questions. Again, there is also the possibility that the international notoriety of the Azeri regime is being used to prop up the latest claims; but this only underscores the importance of keeping a distance from regime figures like the Aliyevs. The fact that even Azeri oligarchs find Maltese firms amenable to their business interests here, raises questions of its own.

Our institutional failure to tackle these questions as they arose has contributed to the crisis.