The Big Lie

This was indeed the ‘biggest lie in Maltese history’ - It cannot be allowed to go unpunished

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The report by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja into Egrant Inc – i.e., the claims that Michelle Muscat was the ultimate beneficial owner of this secret Panama holding – concluded that there was no proof to link either Michelle or Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, or any in their family, to the company in question.

Much more damningly, the inquiry also found that the documents upon which this claim had been built were forgeries, and that the signatures had been falsified. This goes beyond a mere lack of evidence to prove the allegation; it constitutes proof that the allegation itself was a deliberate fabrication, which could only have been conceived to bring down a legitimate government.

In April 2016, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia uploaded transcripts of two alleged declarations of trust, purporting to show that there were at least two shares in Egrant Inc, and that two companies called Dubro Limited S.A. and Aliator S.A. were the nominees in the name of “Ms Michelle Muscat nee Tanti”.

Both texts concluded by saying “The declaration of trust is dated 20 August 2015 and is signed by Jacqueline Alexander as director of Dubro Limited S.A.”

Alexander denied signing those documents, and experts in the UK, engaged by Magistrate Bugeja, have now determined that the signatures in question did not correspond to her authentic signature.

Separately, it transpires that there are no records of the 117 million euro that were allegedly transferred into Egrant’s bank account by a member of the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan. Indeed, there is no evidence of Egrant ever having held any active bank account at all.

Moreover, Caruana Galizia’s testimony before the inquiry was found to contradict that of alleged whistleblower Maria Efimova, in particular concerning the origins of the declarations of trust, and the alleged money transfer. Nor was there any evidence that Pilatus chairman Al Sadr removed incriminating evidence from a safe in the bank, as also alleged by the murdered journalist.

These are indeed shocking and disturbing revelations, and – as can be seen by the full-scale civil war that has now erupted within the Nationalist Party – the long-term consequences are likely to be catastrophic. All this could have been avoided, had the basic tenets of journalism – and indeed common sense – been observed to the letter in this case: as they should be in all cases.

This should serve as a stark reminder to journalists of the danger of allowing oneself to be carried away by political motivations. It will be difficult for NET TV to ever expunge images of running news headlines, declaring in no uncertain terms that ‘Egrant belongs to the Prime Minister’s wife’... when this had yet to be established as a fact by the inquiry.

This flies in the face of all known media principles: sources need to be checked and double-checked; allegations always need to be supported by evidence. This should be true for all published news items... but even more so for controversial, inflammatory claims that have the potential to destabilise the entire country.

Even now, the precise chronology of events remains unclear. For Pierre Portelli – then editor of The Malta Independent – to go on Xtra and claim to have seen the declarations of trust, was quite a bold statement to make on the eve of an election. That he never provided the documents or revealed his source – which he claimed was neither Caruana Galizia nor Maria Efimova – was a matter of contention then and now.

Given the enormity of the implications, the country is now owed an explanation for how those forged documents came into his possession in the first place.

But while the lessons for Maltese media are severe, they pale into insignificance compared to the political fall-out. Former Opposition leader Simon Busuttil chose to take up Caruana Galizia’s claims as his own battle cry, making them the main focus of the PN’s electoral strategy. He even organised a public protest the following Sunday, calling on the Prime Minister to immediately resign.

Now, it is Busuttil who is resisting calls for resignation... and even trying to challenge Adrian Delia for the leadership. This is unacceptable. It is now more than evident that – at best – the Nationalist Party did not carry out due diligence exercise before claiming Egrant was Michelle Muscat’s. Busuttil either took at face value what someone else told him, with all the risks that entailed... or worse.

Either way, Busuttil’s credibility has been shot to atoms. For the good of his party, he has no option but to take the honourable way out.

But the most alarming aspect of the inquiry findings is that they point towards a possible conspiracy: an orchestrated effort, by more than one person, to present this big lie as a fact. The forged documents alone indicate that those responsible for this deception were ready and willing to commit a very serious crime to achieve their ends.

Muscat said that the magistrate’s full inquiry report includes recommendations of legal action against individuals who may have been involved. So far, the identities remain unknown. But their intention is now painstakingly clear.

This was indeed the ‘biggest lie in Maltese history’. It cannot be allowed to go unpunished.