The Attorney General owes us an explanation

There are political considerations that can only raise serious questions about how the AG views his own role in cases in which government may conceivably have an interest.

Cartooon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna
Cartooon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna

It is not often that a magistrate openly expresses 'incredulity' at a request by the prosecution counsel in any given court case.

Nor is it a common occurrence for the prosecution counsel to sheepishly withdraw the same request within a day of the magistrate's unorthodox reaction.

Yet this is precisely what happened this week, in a case that can only call into question the political impartiality of the office of the prosecution, in a country where the chief prosecutor also doubles up as advisor to government.

Last Thursday, Attorney General Dr Peter Grech entered an extraordinary plea in the case against Joseph Borg: the 75-year-old whistleblower who had originally spilt the beans on corruption cases involving the late Lorry Sant in the 1980s.

Borg now stands charged with blackmailing and defaming Rita Schembri, head of the OPM's internal audit directorate, and also a member of the OLAF supervisory board.

Borg claims to be owed €22,000 by Schembri after the latter was found guilty by a civil court of breaching a lease agreement on a restaurant she had rented from Borg.

Effectively, the case revolves around whether an email sent by Borg to Schembri (and copied to the same OLAF board of which she is a member) could constitute 'intimidation' or 'blackmail'.

Yet despite the relatively menial nature of the alleged crime in this instance, the Attorney General unaccountably chose to request that Borg's assets are frozen - an astonishingly extreme demand, of the kind more commonly associated with heinous crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, money laundering and so on.

Such was the incongruous nature of the AG's request that even the magistrate was moved to question it in public.

"I cannot understand this. It doesn't make sense. If it were for a drug trafficking case, I would... but surely not a case of defamation," Magistrate Anthony Vella was reported as saying.

Vella added that if he acceded to this request, the implications would be that "anybody charged with [any] crime could have his assets frozen".

Evidently the AG must have reconsidered his own request in the light of this remark, for the following day he would withdraw it altogether. But by then the damage had been done. Such a disproportionate demand would be deeply suspicious even at the best of times. In this particular instance, however, there are political considerations that can only raise serious questions about how the AG views his own role in cases in which government may conceivably have an interest.

Despite being strictly speaking apolitical in nature, the personal/professional bone of contention between Schembri and Borg has overtones which spill over into the
political domain.

Rita Schembri is also the Maltese government's representative on the same OLAF board that had investigated former Commissioner John Dalli: who in turn was made to resign over allegations contained in a report that was partly compiled by Schembri herself... and which significantly has not yet been made public.

It was in fact the same public revelation that Rita Schembri was a member of the OLAF supervisory board, that had originally prompted Borg to make his accusations in the first place. And it is on the basis of these accusations that Schembri filed a defamation case against Borg.

Bearing all this in mind, the decision by the AG to request sanctions of a degree more commonly associated with the most serious crimes imaginable - e.g., literally the equivalent of 'throwing the book' at a defendant - can only raise serious questions about whether the actions of the Attorney General are in any way guided by a (real or perceived) political agenda.

For even if the nature of the case itself is extraneous to the OLAF report, it remains a fact that Borg's allegations cast doubts over the integrity of at least one of the people who compiled it.

Here one must also remember that the same report forms the basis of a separate case, also handled by the office of the Attorney General, against Silvio Zammit for trading in influence.

As the outcome of the Borg defamation trial will (for better or worse) affect the credibility of the authorship of that same report, it is by no means inconceivable to suggest that the AG's office may have been overzealous in his handling of the case.

Even if it was not Dr Gatt's intention, his decision to request the very maximum sanction possible, under the circumstances, may subliminally cement a perception that in this country, one goes against the establishment only at one's own dire peril.

This may even be an unfair assessment; but popular perceptions are rarely rooted in fairness, and this alone should be borne in mind by people who hold such sensitive office as a chief prosecutor.

Even if the request was not politically motivated, it succeeded in giving the impression that it was. One need hardly add that an impression like this - even if mistaken - can only harm the reputation of Malta's judicial system as a whole.

At a time when the judiciary is still reeling from a corruption case involving a senior judge (the third such case in a decade), the question suddenly becomes whether Malta's law courts can even afford to have such suspicions raised in the first place.

Bearing all this in mind, surely the Attorney General owes an explanation as to why he demonstrated such prosecutorial zeal in such a trivial case.

Taking 'balance' one step too far

The Broadcasting Authority has yet again issued 'regulations' to ensure impartiality and fairness in televised political debates.

One can of course sympathise with the need for such regulations, given that much of what passes for 'discussion' in this country is very often indistinguishable from chaos and mayhem.

But there is a fine line between regulating discussion and killing it altogether... and one does not control the jungle that is televised debate by simply uprooting all the trees.

The BA regulations may in fact represent the first step towards killing televised debate altogether. The latest restriction is that even a live audience must be equally split between the two sides - with all the logistical headaches this will no doubt pose to producers.

Much worse, there are now specific limits concerning audience participation: audience questions must be forwarded to the Authority in advance, close-ups of audience members are only allowed in specific circumstances, and most bizarre of all, the audience is no longer allowed to applaud when it feels something merits applause.

Bearing in mind that the Broadcasting Authority is not in itself innocent of political leanings - indeed its board is made up representatives of political parties, whose decisions are clearly motivated only by the same parties' interests... what we are dealing with here is effectively a muzzling of the press (and even the public) by the two-party system.

The same BA would do well to remember that the two parties are not the only considerations that exist insofar as television is concerned. There is also such a thing as a home audience, and contrary to the BA's impression it also has an intelligence of its own which does not deserve to be insulted in this way.

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"but popular perceptions are rarely rooted in fairness," I would opine that the reverse is true. I do not mean those perceptions born out of tit-for-tat, football club catcalls belonging to political party supporters. I refer to perceptions mentally crafted by moderate, middle road persons, who are capable of reaching decisions. It is a certainty that political appointments are making their presence felt within all levels of decisions affecting society. In addition, it is being felt that political appointees are battling amongst themselves to win favour with their appointers and prove that they are the most faithful, subservient and lackey of the lot.