A matter of authenticity

Even without the proven accusation of bribery, Joseph Muscat’s cavalier attitude on Panamagate undermines the credibility of the prime minister and leaves the common man in the street smarting

30 April 2017, 8:30am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
The position of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, is untenable. By the very standards once promised by the Labour government upon election in 2013 – but more importantly by the simple, heartfelt, measure of common decency – Schembri has to step down now from his position as he faces serious allegations of having received kickbacks through Brian Tonna’s offshore company.

Understandably, the denials have been clear on the part of Schembri: the allegation that fees from Russian clients who acquired a Maltese passport paid to Tonna’s offshore company were kicked back to Schembri, were challenged by his insistence that he was being repaid for a 2012 loan to Tonna. But this is certainly a matter of criminal inquiry, for a magistrate to establish, and in the midst of the serious accusations, it is unthinkable that the Prime Minister is assisted by a chief of staff whose association with offshore companies is indelible.

This is a serious matter that touches upon the authenticity of any head of government. Even without the proven accusation of bribery, Muscat’s cavalier attitude on Panamagate and the offshore holdings of his chief of staff and the minister he retained by his side, undermines the credibility of the prime minister and leaves the common man in the street smarting.

With Godfrey Farrugia’s seemingly inevitable resignation, even within the miasma of unknown - unknowns of the Egrant allegations - it is clear that the Labour government has to take stock.

This newspaper has penned countless leaders on how Labour’s promises of accountability, transparency and meritocracy were sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and self-preservation.

Muscat campaigned in poetry, and gave the electorate a grand narrative for aspiration, equality and fairness. But he governed in prose, and within the landscape of unprecedented economic growth, the advancement of civil liberties, and the reform of the national energy infrastructure, he frustrated those who hold good governance, the environment, and justice at heart. The universal appeal of ‘Taghna Lkoll’ careened towards the precipice where Panamagate tore up the roadmap.

To illustrate the frustration of watching a country’s government ignore the seriousness of the allegations dogging it, it bears reminding the two weights and two measures applied with the poorest of our members of society: in recent weeks, a police swoop in Marsa on African asylum seekers and migrants waiting to pick up a temporary job, was revealed to have been a fruitless, three-hour detention to check their documents. And yet, the seriousness of an accusation by the Opposition leader that the PM’s chief of staff could have been paid a kickback through an offshore company’s bank account, seems to ruffle no feathers.

In itself, this only keeps confirming the ominous words of Evarist Bartolo back in 2016, of a law that exists for animals, the other for gods; so retention of Mizzi and Schembri by Muscat’s side since Panama broke has only laid fertile ground for the new allegations – albeit unproven – to germinate. For a long time, he ignored speculation on the ownership of Egrant, the third, mysterious offshore company created by Tonna and revealed by the Panama Papers. It was coupled with the institutional failure of the police to investigate and to take forward the FIAU’s concerns on Panama. The search for overseas bank accounts for the minister and the chief of staff made it clear that a full investigation was necessary.

But now, the new allegations and the crisis of political trust it has prompted, the role of the PM’s chief of staff – a man connected to private offshore interests, with the serious implications that brings of tax avoidance to the predicate offence of money laundering, and his proximity on major decisions dealing with large investment and national projects – makes it beyond doubt that he must step down from his position.

The Prime Minister himself had said, during his 2016 ‘reshuffle’, that Schembri was appointed on the basis of personal, not public trust. Of the latter, there seems to be little if anything; of the former, the prime minister should consider his responsibility for the trust he has invested in Schembri.

***

The launch of a magisterial inquiry on the complaint of the Prime Minister himself, who vehemently denies the allegation by Daphne Caruana Galizia that his wife was Egrant’s beneficial owner, illustrates the seriousness with which he has taken this accusation. It is a step in the right direction, for the inquiry, under the Criminal Code, employs the full powers of the magistrature to truly investigate these serious allegations.

But the source of the allegations, the calculated trickle of information and absence of documentation, and also the Opposition’s decision to take a cautious step back on the Egrant inquiry to instead take full ownership of the Schembri kickback allegations, is a sign of how we have reached a point where the battle is one of perception and for people’s hearts.

For as a newspaper, we believe that accusations of this sort must be buttressed by a journalistic standard that enjoys public confidence on its source of information and evidence.

The central narrative of Caruana Galizia’s accusation, that Michelle Muscat was revealed as the beneficial owner of shares held by two Panamanian fronts in Egrant, was tied to a $1 million bank transfer at Pilatus Bank from the Azerbaijani ruling family, that also raised eyebrows with its correspondent bank. Other reports, that Pilatus hosts oligarchs from Azerbaijan and Angola (MaltaToday has reported on these same interests, notably Kamaladdin Heydarov’s frontman and Isabel dos Santos companies in Malta), coloured the outlines of this accusation, for Malta’s ties with Azerbaijan’s energy complex and the fact that Schembri holds an account at Pilatus Bank, only served to make suspicion, conjecture and wild speculation the order of the day in this sordid story.

So it is clear that this magisterial inquiry should have the mission of resolving whether what has been reported by Caruana Galizia is indeed true, for it would mean the prime minister has lied, with all the consequences on democracy that would prompt.

And if not, if the Opposition would have tied itself to circumstantial evidence that sought to present plausibility to the narrative, we would have been faced with an attempt to distort public opinion, with equally serious consequences on democracy.

It has to be said that the reason that the Egrant allegations have been questioned by a considerable part of the general public, is over the lack of documentation when such an explosive accusation was made, and the fact that Daphne Caruana Galizia is a partisan entity, whose journalistic credentials are inexorably tied to a virulent anti-Labour agenda.

Having said that, and irrespectively of who the messenger is, journalists’ first obligation is to the truth, their loyalty is to the citizens, and their trade must be the discipline of verification.

At this stage, in a battle of truth versus ‘truthiness’, so much has happened to compound the aura of suspicion around these allegations. The common thread is Pilatus Bank, with the enduring image of its chairman emerging from the bank at night carrying his luggage having given a suspicious tint to proceedings the night the Egrant allegation broke. And the Commissioner of Police’s dinner appointment that night lent matters a comical bent. If this was a crazy script, it wrote itself into a narrative laced with a dramatis personae from the world of the Caspian Corleones, the Azerbaijani first family. Truth can be hard to achieve when the narrative matters more than the facts.

***

Equally, the battle of perceptions has now metastasised into tribalistic warfare, the most shameful example being the illegal dissemination of personal data of MaltaToday’s managing editor Saviour Balzan’s phone call logs from a telecoms company, published by Caruana Galizia. The intention, to hit out at this newspaper’s commercial stability – for it is through journalists’ privacy that we guarantee the confidentiality of our sources – went unnoticed by those who portray themselves as defenders of Malta’s democracy. The mere fact that a newspaper owner was, as is normally expected, in contact with people in power, those who lead the country, top businessmen and other important sources, was treated as an act of contempt; while the illegal processing of personal data was celebrated.

No doubt celebrated because who published the information is a partisan entity, serving not the interests of the citizenry through journalism, but those who wish to see independent journalism, journalism that refuses to be pigeon-holed, undermined.

But those who celebrate such undemocratic actions only contribute to the psychological warfare being waged on journalists, a grave problem recently revealed by University of Malta academic Prof. Marylin Clark’s study for the Council of Europe. To participate in such an attack on the fourth estate would mean consigning Malta to its endless vassalage to the all-seeing, all-suffocating, two-party system – a system that seeks to perpetuate its control of our democratic institutions, our public life, our environment, and even our liberty to think freely.