Is it at all about democracy?

In another twist to the contorted storyline of Maltese politics, Busuttil is seeing red on a legal matter that suits only him and his politics, and nobody else

Simon Busuttil did the right thing when he rallied his troops and called on followers to stand up and be counted on Panamagate; it’s one very serious scandal, even though there is smoke and no fire, but one that has seen this newspaper demanding the necessary political resignations.

The Labour Party reacted to the PN’s strategy with a cynical tirade over PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami’s villa in Gharghur, querying his planning permits and putting into question the opulence of the sprawl – in a bid to stall the onslaught that Panamagate had brought upon the government.

But now, in yet another twist to the contorted storyline of Maltese politics, Busuttil is seeing red on a legal matter that suits only him and his politics, and nobody else.

To give a backdrop we can start with police inspector Elton Taliana, of Birkirkara, a man who at one time was a security detail for former PN deputy prime minister Tonio Borg – you could say there is no need to hazard on which side of the fence the inspector sat on.

At the time his behaviour had given rise to serious internal concern at the police, and yet he was still promoted to inspector by then commissioner of police John Rizzo.

In 2007, the front door of my house was set ablaze; it was a harrowing experience, more so because I was sure from day one that the people involved had to be in cahoots with police or army officers – I lived just 20 metres away from the Naxxar police station

Then some years later, I informed John Rizzo of confidential information I had received about Elton Taliana in connection with the arson attack on my house. It was the first time I had heard Taliana’s name, and I passed this information on to Rizzo, who told me he would investigate.

Nothing came out of this investigation.

Years later, I received more information on Taliana: leaked documents from a police file dealing with police internal investigations about Taliana, minuted concerns about his behaviour, and photographs of Taliana in the company of characters who had faced criminal investigation.

When I wrote that story, I was sued for libel by Taliana. His choice of lawyer was Joe Zammit Maempel, the lawyer who represents the Nationalist Party and its members in defamation cases.

In my defence, I presented all the leaked documents in court, as evidence of what I wrote. So Taliana filed his own complaint to the Information Data Protection Commissioner that the leaked documents were a breach of his data protection rights; and in his investigation, the IDPC expediently enough concluded – or left little to the imagination – that a data breach took place because MaltaToday had been leaked Taliana’s personal file by the Commissioner of Police, who at the time was Peter Paul Zammit.

The circumstantial evidence, for the IDPC, was that at one point the file was in the Commissioner’s possession and stayed so until his removal.

The IDPC did not even bother to ask me – a person he assumes must have been the sole recipient of the alleged leak – about what I knew, or when I received the documents. It was an ‘investigation’ based on the IDPC’s assumptions, informed or not, without questioning the parties involved. Surely not an exemplary case of deduction.

When the IDPC’s findings were concluded months later, the PN’s shadow minister – Jason Azzopardi – pounced on the occasion so as to denigrate former police commissioner Zammit, who was now security chief for CHOGM (a position Zammit resigned from before November 2015). Azzopardi addressed a press conference outside the CHOGM offices where Zammit then worked.

I was incensed – I rushed off to the press conference to face Azzopardi and state unequivocally that the leaked documents I had received did not originate from the Commissioner of Police, Zammit, or any other senior police official; and I said that the IDPC did not even have the decency to call me in to ask about the documents I had come by.

I looked Azzopardi in the eyes to tell him he was defending a police officer who was not fit for purpose, to which he stuttered something that he had ‘nothing to say about this’.

Well, what happened later was typical of what happens in the press: Azzopardi’s comments were reported as is, letting the MP take his place in the sun, and Peter Paul Zammit decided to sue first The Times and then Azzopardi for defamation.

Now to open a ‘criminal defamation’ lawsuit, all you do is simply show up at the police station, make your declaration, and then hope the police will prosecute. Anyone can do it. Uncouth and dishonourable neighbours do it all the time to each other: they don’t want to pay for the costs of a civil libel suit, so they let the police do it at the taxpayers’ expense. Angry couples going through a separation do it all the time.

But now you have to consider exactly where Peter Paul Zammit is to be found in the Maltese political universe. You see, he is not exactly close to the Labour administration. When Joseph Muscat realised the man was not really up to the job as police commissioner (Muscat had brought him out of ‘retirement’, when he was practising privately as a legal procurator), he offered him the carrot of the CHOGM security chief in March 2014 so that he would replace him.

Fast-forward to 31 March, 2016: last Thursday, Simon Busuttil and his MPs held a press conference decrying “the end of democracy” and heralding a throwback to the 1980s by the Labour administration, because Jason Azzopardi will have to answer to a police complaint of defamation filed by Peter Paul Zammit, i.e. appear in a court of law.

Now, you would be forgiven if you open your eyes to the reality of 2016, where this Labour administration is pretty much a ‘reloaded’ Nationalist government that only pays lip service to its Mintoffian heritage.

While Busuttil sets much store by the prospect that Azzopardi could end up spending three months in prison if found guilty, I have to say that I’d wish he had said the same when MaltaToday columnist Raphael Vassallo, editor Matthew Vella and I were faced with criminal libel with the same possibility of being sent to prison.

Because he gives the impression that the whole action by Peter Paul Zammit is part of some Machiavellian plan, when he knows it is not. You can see the defamation caseload in court, where it is usually packed with journalists and politicians in the dock, most of whom tend to be not of Nationalist affectation.         

And the press should also know that in 2014, this administration commissioned two lawyers – who, let it be known, are not in the remotest of any Labour extraction or orientation – to draw up a law to reform the Press Act and abolish criminal libel.

Because one has to really consider the ill effects of criminal libel by going back in time, to a place which many consider to be the paradise we have since fallen from.

I remember writing an article on Commissioner of Police John Rizzo, when I questioned, of all things, his readiness to act on the publicly-declared instructions of former Labour deputy leader Michael Falzon to investigate a defamatory allegation. Both Rizzo and Falzon sued for libel, with deleterious effects on MaltaToday.

When I told then home affairs minister Tonio Borg that Rizzo’s libel action was wrong and that he should be able to take the flak as a senior official, Borg’s inane reply was that even Rizzo had his rights as a private citizen to defend himself.

Which is what Rizzo did, taking on as lawyer Joe Giglio, now an aspiring PN candidate and television host on Net TV. Fair dues to Dr Giglio, who at the end of that saga had sent me a bill that was a rather moderate one.

But still: no one, absolutely nobody, rushed to the House of Representatives to express concern that democracy was crumbling because John Rizzo, the Commissioner of Police, was suing a newspaper for its temerity to pass comment on his investigative zeal.

Another one: in 2009, the politically appointed PBS head of news, Natalino Fenech, (appointed in January 2008 three months before the general election) filed a police report to sue me for criminal libel over comments passed on a PBS report on the leadership race between George Abela and Joseph Muscat.

In 2010, a posse of prison wardens and the head of prisons did the same, filing a police complaint to sue Raphael Vassallo and Matthew Vella for criminal libel over a news report detailing the state of Corradino Correctional Facility. Nobody twitched an eyelid about this “attack” on the freedom of the press, not even Jason Azzopardi, the self-styled arbiter of decency and morals.

Oh… the wardens’ lawyer was, by the way, none other than Peter Paul Zammit.

And there have been a plethora of civil lawsuits filed by Nationalist and Labour party exponents such as Richard Cachia Caruana, Paul Borg Olivier and Joe Sammut, and MPs. The defamation suit is resorted to by politicians because they can abuse the slow grind of the Maltese courts to gag the press, and machinate the impression that they are fighting off serious allegations.

In his haste to illustrate some national crisis over democracy, Busuttil roped in the willing German MEP Manfred Weber, who heads the European People’s Party bloc in the European parliament. Weber obliged with much bluster, but omitted to tell the Maltese that German press laws are the toughest you can find in Europe with up to five years’ imprisonment, and which include additional crimes such as ‘unconstitutional denigration of the Organs of the Constitution’, ‘defamation with deliberate untruths’, and ‘political defamation with increased penalties’ which allows certain public figures additional protection against criticism.

So when politicians speak of democracy, it is important to remind them that the barometer of democracy is not in their hands, but in ours.

When we cannot even read the weather correctly, I think the issue is not democracy but something more sinister and dangerous.