Asking too much

Whatever mistakes may have been made in the way those police reports were handled, the fact remains that 12 people died at sea, when it was Malta’s responsibility to save them where possible

With this article, I’m going to break at least one of the rules I set for myself around 10 years ago: when I started interviewing people on a regular basis, whilst also writing an op-ed column in the same newspaper. 

Put simply, the rule is to never use this column to respond (or react) to any of the people I interview… in other words, to keep my two weekly press contributions – interview, and opinion column – as separate and distinct as possible.  

This week, however, I decided to make an exception. But first, a bit of context. 

Last Tuesday, I sent an email to the AFM’s press office requesting an interview with AFM commander Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi, on the subject of the criminal charges filed against him (and 11 members of the AFM) on two distinct counts: one, an accusation that AFM members had ‘sabotaged’ a migrant vessel; and two, that the AFM had failed to respond to a distress call, in a case which resulted in the loss of 12 lives at sea. 

The response I got (see below) was not enough for a full-blown interview… but I felt it deserved to be published anyway, for reasons I’ll come to later. 

Before proceeding, however: a small word about the editing process. The email I sent contained six questions… but what I received was a single answer to all six at once. 

Whatever mistakes may have been made in the way those police reports were handled, the fact remains that 12 people died at sea, when it was Malta’s responsibility to save them where possible

As it would be inconvenient to read all the questions first, and then try and figure out which part of the answer corresponded to which question… I took the liberty of splitting up the text accordingly. 

This created a small chronology issue; which I resolved by simply reversing questions two and three. Nonetheless, if you lift out all the answers, and place them all in sequence… you will be left with the exact reply I was sent by Brigadier Jeffrey Curmi on Friday 24 April, with no alterations or omissions.  

In any case, this is the interview in Q&A format: 

Q: On April 9, NGO Alarm Phone claimed that crew of the patrol boat P52 boarded a migrant vessel in Maltese waters, and ‘sabotaged’ the engine. This was reported by the international press. Yet when contacted by local press, a spokesperson said that the AFM had ‘no comment to make’. In fact, there were no official communications about the incident at all. Why did the AFM refuse to give comments, or make any attempt to clarify what happened in that incident? 

A: We thank you for your interest in the Armed Forces of Malta. 
It is submitted that it is incumbent on those levying the accusations in question to verify their sources and seek corroboration which substantiates their claim, not the other way round.   

False, inaccurate or irresponsible posts on social media are regretfully commonplace.  Were the AFM to comment on every false allegation, social media post, fake news, and/or inaccuracy by some media outlets, a full day’s work would probably still not suffice.  

Q: New evidence submitted on 21 April suggests that the incident was not ‘sabotage’, but a routine rescue procedure used in all cases. Couldn’t the AFM have avoided this misunderstanding by explaining the facts of the case from the outset? 

A: This was not a case of a misunderstanding occasioned by the AFM, but one where an NGO presented as fact an incorrect accusation, to the detriment of the Armed Forces of Malta, which accusation was reproduced by other media outlets who similarly did not seek to verify the information.  

Unfortunately, as noted, inaccurate and irresponsible reports are too many for the AFM to stay addressing and clarifying all of them. 

Q: Was there an internal inquiry launched into the allegation at the time? 

A: With respect to your query about an internal inquiry, it is emphasised that 66 persons on board a migrant boat were brought safely to Malta. Hence this was a successful operation were human lives were saved.  

The facts of the case being requested were and are being duly provided during the course of the Magisterial Inquiry.  

Q: A separate report concerns another migrant vessel which found itself in difficulty, eventually resulting in five people confirmed dead, and seven missing. Alarm Phone claims that this boat was adrift in Maltese waters for days; and that it alerted the Maltese authorities about this boat on April 10.  In a press release, the AFM claimed that rescue operations started the moment the boat drifted into Maltas SAR. Can you supply a clear timeline of the facts of this case? 

A: Since the matter is now the subject of said Magisterial Inquiry, no additional comments will be made at this stage as prudence demands that the Inquiry be allowed to take its course.  It is additionally noted that the information suggested in some of the questions appears to be based on media and/or NGO reports which are amongst themselves contradictory or of dubious nature and makes foregone conclusions on their basis. 

Please also note that your suggestion that the AFM issued a press release on the matter is incorrect.  

Q: The AFM did not deny receiving the notification on April 10. Yet it was only on April 13 that a rescue mission was launched. Between the time of the alert, and the rescue, 12 people are understood to have died. Was the AFM monitoring the vessel since April 10? Are we to understand that the AFM was aware that people's lives were in danger at sea, yet only acted when those people became our country's legal responsibility? 

A: It is finally noted that Malta’s obligation under the 1979 SAR Convention is to coordinate search and rescue within its area of competence, known as the search and rescue region, and not to conduct all rescues with its own State assets.  

On the contrary, the same Convention stipulates in no uncertain terms that both public and private resources can be used. Rescue Coordination Centre Malta upheld its obligation to coordinate at all times. 

Q: Government has declared Malta’s ports to be ‘unsafe’ (and therefore ‘closed to migrants’) during the COVID-19 pandemic. How will this impact future rescue operations? Does it mean that the AFM will no longer attempt to rescue migrant vessels in distress at all? 

A: The Government declaration referred to informs that resources cannot be guaranteed in the context of the COVID-19 public health emergency, and not as suggested. Your attention is kindly directed to the relevant government press release for proper interpretation of the same. 

With renewed thanks for your email and interest in the AFM. [End] 

Right: now for the rule-breaking part. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother publishing a reply that, under scrutiny, doesn’t amount to much more than a lengthier-than-usual ‘no comment’. 

But the circumstances are far from normal. Whatever mistakes may have been made in the way those police reports were handled, the fact remains that 12 people died at sea, when it was Malta’s legal responsibility to save them where possible (note: I dealt with the ‘sabotage’ case in my last column, so I won’t go into it again here); and meanwhile, two whole weeks have gone by, and we still don’t have any form of official account of the precise details of this incident.  

Granted, this does not translate into automatic guilt on the part of the AFM (and this where NGOs and sections of the media are clearly getting it wrong)… but 12 people dying in Malta’s SAR is not a matter that can be so lightly brushed aside, either.  

Let’s take a closer look at the answers, though. There are three basic arguments being made here: One, that the AFM cannot comment on the case at hand, because it is now subject to a magisterial inquiry; 

Two, that the AFM is under no obligation to respond to allegations by the media or NGOs, because the onus of proof lies with the accuser, not the accused, and; 

Three, a blanket assertion that “Rescue Coordination Centre Malta upheld its obligation to coordinate at all times.” 

To the first argument, I would counter that there actually wouldn’t be a magisterial inquiry at all, were it not for those allegations being made (however spuriously) in the media.  

Besides, 10 whole days had elapsed before Repubblika actually filed its police reports… during which there was no ‘magisterial inquiry’ to be used as an excuse to avoid providing any information to the public. 

Ultimately, this raises the question of what would have happened had those allegations not been made at all. There would quite simply have been no attempt, of any kind whatsoever, to get to the bottom of a mysterious maritime tragedy in which 12 people lost their lives. 

And this, to me, is quite frankly inconceivable.  

As for point number two: the AFM’s obligation is not towards the media, or any specific NGO… but to the general public, to whom all national institutions are supposed to be answerable.  

Meanwhile, those 12 deaths were separately confirmed by both Frontex and the International Migration Organisation… so even if Curmi is technically correct to cite the ‘onus of proof’ argument, with regard to the ones making the allegation… that argument doesn’t apply to the broader (and entirely legitimate) questions that should always be asked in the case of proven fatalities. 

In this case, these include the question of whether the AFM actually adhered to its legal and procedural obligations, or not.   

The most worrying part, however, is that the alternative to asking these questions is… um… not asking them at all. In other words, to simply take the authorities’ word for it that all laws and procedures are always being observed to the letter: in the process, throwing overboard all notions of ‘transparency, ‘accountability’, ’checks and balances’, etc. 

And oddly enough, this is in fact the substance of the third main argument: which can be roughly translated as: “No need for any official inquiries. We did everything right; and anyone who says otherwise is lying, full-stop.” 

And what... we’re supposed to all just accept that blindly, without even asking any questions? 

Sorry, but that’s asking too much…  

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