Not the media that’s under scrutiny

Ministers' speculation over the actions of the media that brought out this case into the open, puts paid to their lip service to a free press.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

It has been a credit to the work of MaltaToday to have declarations by the Prime Minister, transport and finance ministers Austin Gatt and Tonio Fenech, as well as the Opposition leader, commending the journalism that broke the news of commissions, or kickbacks, paid to a former Enemalta consultant back in 2004 by Trafigura for the supply of fuel oil to the state utility.

Significantly, this newspaper's credibility in Maltese journalism has been such that it created a trusted brand for readers, but also for whistleblowers who in the past years, bereft of any legislation that protects them, came forward under the condition of anonymity and confidentiality to reveal cases of maladministration and illegality, be they inside the public sector, the private sphere of business, the clergy or in the stewardship of our environmental resources.

At no point should anybody entertain the prospect that the source of a news story, embarrassing or damning as it may be for any incumbent government or respected individual, should be revealed. This cardinal rule of journalism protects the fundamentals of the process itself: reporting, mediating for the general public, asking the questions they cannot, and finding out the necessary information to get at the truth.

This may be a somewhat solemn quest, but if we had to abandon the objective existence of 'truth', we would be reduced to a relativist pursuit of imagined and fictitious episodes in our public life, much of which already happens in party-owned media.

And yet, MaltaToday has been the lone subject of an inquisitorial line of questioning by members of the Nationalist Party and PBS journalists that, this week, confirmed an unfortunate perception.

For correctness's sake, MaltaToday published on 20 January and 27 January the names of Frank Sammut, the MOBC consultant, and oil trader George Farrugia respectively after having established that Farrugia was the trader representing Trafigura when kickbacks were allegedly paid to Sammut for the supply of oil to Enemalta. The news was instantly the subject of a criminal investigation by the police, leading to four men, Sammut included, being charged on corruption.

In the days that followed, other independent media rightfully followed up the case: The Times revealed that Farrugia's trading company Aikon turned out to have been siphoning oil revenues from Powerplan, a family company that Farrugia managed. Then came the revelation that Aikon was the subject of a Tax Compliance Unit investigation for tax fraud, which started from a referral by the Security Services to the finance ministry but which failed to make its way to the economic crimes unit.

Overshadowing these developments were several attempts at discrediting or putting doubt on the journalism uncovering these unfortunate episodes. First, it was transport minister Austin Gatt - revealed by The Times as the "A.G." and "Aust" that oil trader George Farrugia emailed Trafigura and Total reps about - who claimed that emails published by both the TOM and MaltaToday could have been tampered with. A first press conference fell flat when TOM journalists explained that the confusion over a 'tampered' email was down to an unfaithful replication of the MaltaToday email; but in a second press conference, the minister responsible for IT claimed that it was impossible for pre-2006 emails published by MaltaToday to be dated in the Maltese language. Again this was proved to have been an erroneous deduction.

Then on Friday, another attempt at discrediting MaltaToday came in an unfortunate tandem between Bondiplus presenter Lou Bondì, whose company Where's Everybody has extensive commercial interests in productions for the national broadcaster; and finance minister Tonio Fenech.

Fenech is free to associate Aikon's activities with its former directors, a nominee company whose director includes Labour's own financial controller. But the allusion that the work of the independent media in this case was intended to serve Labour's political interests is an unwelcome addition to the misgivings that the finance minister, responsible for Enemalta, is keen on publicizing.

The criticism that the PN is right to express on the role of Labour candidates and their association with George Farrugia's Aikon, should not be used to deliberately pour doubt on the work of the independent media - unless the minister is having doubts about the media's role in a democratic society in uncovering such acts of maladministration.

That a presenter of a PBS programme contributes to this unwelcome speculation, raises questions on the national broadcaster's editorial line: one that has now attracted the admonition of the Broadcasting Authority.

So far - neither Gatt's speculation on email fabrication, nor Fenech's probe into Aikon's former directors - has come with any significant contribution to the real issue at stake: the corruption inside Enemalta's fuel procurement system. Their declarations may serve well, in the heat of the electoral race, to give their voters their own interpretation of what has been published by the press; but speculation over the actions of the media that brought out this case into the open, puts paid to their lip service to a free press.

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