A (short) history of impunity

'When it comes to rule of law, it is important to remember that Malta’s culture of impunity has been around for longer than we can ever imagine'. Let's go down memory lane

The majority of the Maltese people have chosen to remain silent. Silent in the face of this horrible chapter in our lives as journalists – an episode that we would have never wished to have faced.

The wish of the Caruana Galizia family for the President of the Republic not to attend for the funeral of their slain relative, however rankled. Evidently, calls for unity are for the time being unrealistic. No one really expected otherwise.  

If anyone should have been hurt it had to be the President, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, who was personally ridiculed and terrorised by the late Caruana Galizia about her having been a single mother, or on how fat she might have looked. Coleiro Preca rose above all that and showed compassion and tolerance, the kind that is difficult for someone who was ridiculed so intensely. 

Over the last two weeks, I met several foreign journalists following the tragic event, to answer their questions. I am very happy to be Maltese and a journalist. I have had a string of news stories under my name probing every party and every politician, many corruption scandals and allegations. Unlike other journalists or commentators I strove hard not to look the other way when stories crop up about people I happen to know or may have even admired.

The world press cannot be bothered with the details and minutiae of island life, the kind which seem important to us to fully comprehend our lives here. The narrative for them is simple enough: Panama Papers, Murder, ‘Mafia State’.

From BBC to Liberation, to New York Times to others, I realised that my version did not really count. They wanted me to repeat their narrative – as they saw it and wished to have it. When they realised that I was not one of those willing to lionise Caruana Galizia, they edited the bits that interested them to make it read exactly the way they wished. That too, I’m afraid, is a regretful reality of journalism today.

The execution of a journalist is certainly nothing to take lightly. Still, to say that everything around us is falling apart, or that we are a mafia state – that is, our executive is intimately connected to organised crime – is totally misrepresentative. Nor is it true that our journalists here don’t do their jobs, or investigate thoroughly enough. On the contrary, we have many journalists who are doing a better job than others because they believe in verifying stories and not just base them on supposition or political spin.

Many people talking about the rule of law have set their sights on the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General. When it comes to AG Peter Grech, it seems the desire for his resignation stems from the inaction on the Panama Papers. At least I cannot see the direct link with this murder. Having said that, in a normal country there is both political and administrative responsibility to be borne.

With regard to the AG, I think the argument is that since Caruana Galizia had published a segment of the Maltese links in the Panama Papers and the AG had not proceeded in prosecuting politically exposed persons, this was enough of an indictment. Grech has argued that he did not have compelling evidence to take this forward. His critics argue that he has.

When it comes to rule of law, it is important to remember that Malta’s culture of impunity has been around for longer than we can ever imagine.

Allow me to take go down memory lane. In 2000, the PN government had been in power for over 12 years and George Grech, the commissioner of police and head of the security services, was being investigated by a magistrate who found that there was sufficient prima facie evidence to prosecute him for blackmail threats, attempted rape, misuse of public funds and misuse of the telephone system.

Anthony Borg Barthet, then Attorney General, politically close to the PN administration and appointed by the same government, had then applied the nolle prosequi procedure – essentially, a decision by the AG not to prosecute the case.

Commissioner Grech did not only find the tacit support of the AG’s office. He was also defended by Daphne Caruana Galizia, who attacked the victim (Isabelle Azzopardi) in her inimitable way: describing her in very sensational and salacious terms. TVM presenter Lou Bondì also invited Commissioner Grech on his programme BondiCini, for some cushioning (co-presenter Simone Cini quit the programme as a result of this episode). And finally the usual posse of ‘journalists’ and commentators, such as Andrew Borg Cardona, not to mention the usual others, gave a push in their own way.

This was not the only nolle prosequi Anthony Borg Barthet decided upon. He did the same for seven other criminal cases. One of them was the death of a young boy from suspected medical negligence at St Luke’s Hospital.

Borg Barthet was appointed judge in the European Court of Justice by in 2003 and then reappointed in 2006 and 2012. His term comes to an end in 2018.

My point is that we can talk about the rule of law but our problem with impunity has been endemic in the Maltese system of alternating power in the two-party system, aided by the willing acolytes who benefit from this system.

In 1992 Nationalist minister Louis Galea was investigated over serious financial irregularities by the Commission against Corruption in the notorious Auxiliary Workers’ Training scheme - he did not resign. When, as Education Minister, a magistrate started investigating irregularities in the award of contracts by the Foundation for Tomorrows’ Schools in 2003, he also did not resign. On the contrary, he was kicked upstairs and appointed at the Court of Auditors in Luxembourg in 2008. Today, the party grandee can pontificate on good governance on NET TV.

And when just before the 2013 election, the same Attorney General Peter Grech followed a request by Lawrence Gonzi to issue a pardon to the rogue trader George Farrugia in relation to the oil scandal, in spite of his broken and contradictory testimony and more importantly confirmation of his false testimony in the acquittal of Enemalta official Ray Ferris, no one asked for the resignation of Peter Grech.

Impunity did not come home in March 2013, even though there is a concerted effort to give that kind of impression. And I understand that a vast majority of people who are alien to voicing their gripes on Facebook, still wholeheartedly desire justice in the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder, whether they liked her or not.

And they want change. They want a better police force – better equipped and better paid, a more accountable executive and a more independent prosecuting office.

But as another journalist recently pointed out to me, Malta being an imperfect State, we should not expect miracles. In my case all I want to is to get back to doing what I have always done and to do it in the best way possible. Journalism as I always knew it, just that and nothing more.

And perhaps, in this parting note, I should also add that the people also wish to see a definite conclusion on the Egrant inquiry being led by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja. They want to see him publish his findings, for the nation too seek closure on this episode – one which so intimately connects the power of journalism, the late Caruana Galizia, and the embattled Prime Minister. Hopefully, we can see some courage on this front too to have this inquiry finally shine a light on the allegations made.