Wednesday 28 February 2024

Where do we go from here?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I don’t think anyone was really surprised by the conclusions of the Board of the public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  The testimony we heard over these last months was enough to indicate what the damning results would be. 

It is clear that there were those who held high office during the Muscat administration who were too uncomfortably (and dangerously) close to the criminals commissioned to carry out the murder, which led the latter to presume that they could get away with anything. Outright collusion or obstruction of justice has not yet been proven but what we know so far is bad enough. This is the ‘culture of impunity’ which we have heard so much about over the last few months. The fact that these hardened criminals, who had already got way with so much in the past, didn’t get away scot free with this high-profile murder as well, was purely due to the fact that the FBI were immediately brought in to take over many crucial forensic aspects of the investigation.  These were men who, as the  phrase goes, “were known to the Police”, so one must also ask why they were allowed to run around freely for so long, not only since 2013, but for many years before that, under different Police Commissioners?  

But the paramount question many members of the public are asking is: now what? Where do we go from here?  

Some answers can be found when one takes a look at the recommendations of the Board (here I will be quoting at length from the excellent, comprehensive report by Matthew Agius published in Malta Today).  The recommendations delve into many aspects of the Maltese political landscape which have been allowed to rot and fester for far too long. The Board is proposing amendments to Malta’s criminal law which are vital. “Legal amendments could help combat the mentality that one could evade the long arm of the law and even commit serious crimes because one was in a position of power, be it political or economic – or because one was part of a criminal organisation protected by this power.”

Apart from impunity, it also significantly speaks about another type of culture,  the ‘culture of familiarity”; what in Maltese we call “kunfidenza żejda”.   Over-familiarity is often the downfall of many a politician abroad, but in Malta, where everyone knows everyone else, it is often difficult for many to understand that once one becomes a PEP, one’s relationship with others takes on a whole new meaning.  There is a decided reluctance to establish a discretionary, prudent distance or to tone down one’s previous lifestyle and behaviour (“why should I?” many will demand, as they pout on FB and flaunt their bikini bodies. “U ejja, b’daqshekk? live and let live!”).   Meanwhile the likes and love emojis come floating in from an equally superficial and clueless public, heedless of the fact that this is now an MP, who should be acting with a modicum of dignity, not the girl/guy you meet for a beer at your local pub.

Of course, the over-familiarity tends to come from voters as well. We must be one of the few countries in the world where a wedding guest list (pre-Covid) used to casually include a number of MPs, and even the PM, not because they are close family friends or relatives but because there is some kind of ‘obligation’ or because the family are active within the party, or simply constituents. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered how many politicians have regifted presents in order to cope with all those wedding invites).

When you add the likelihood of being related, either by blood or by marriage to someone in politics, then over-familiarity takes on a literal meaning. On top of all this, one has to include the wearing of too many hats, especially in the case of lawyer-politicians (let alone criminal lawyers), which can often blur the lines between their actions and statements.  All of it is just too incestuous, too messy, too easily liable to make one cross the line into dubious, unethical waters.

“The mentality that through personal contacts, friendships and familiarity, if not common interests, one can acquire that to which he has no right, must be eradicated,” reads another of the Board’s recommendations.  

We have to admit to ourselves that we have become inured to it all, so much so that reading these recommendations in black and white, feels like we are being zapped by a sharp, short jolt.  “Whoever breaks the law should suffer the consequences of his actions and should not have the expectation that money will regularise that which he did not have the right to by law. It is this mentality, prevalent in society, which strengthens the arrogance of those with political and economic power. It is the seed that sprouts corruption.”

All of this is so obvious that when one thinks about it, it is actually bizarre. Did we really need to have all this spelt out to us? Apparently, yes. 

Of course, this is a malady we are all too aware of, and which we are often too willing to shrug off, usually with the reasoning: “what’s my little, innocuous ‘corruption’ compared to the much bigger corruption all around us?”  But little seeds tend to grow and flourish until they become tangled branches of corruption where everyone is compromised. And it is precisely because so many (irrespective of their politics) have ended up becoming compromised in one way or another, that we are in the situation we are in.  It is also why corruption at the top can never, ever be brushed aside, because inevitably, it spreads downwards. 

The Board particularly singles out when politicians cosy up to the business sector.  “The law should ensure that there are no hidden dealings between the public administration and business. Communication about prospective investment through unofficial back channels should be prohibited”, said the Board, adding that a law regulating lobbying should be enacted.  

Other noteworthy recommendations include a law creating “Unexplained Wealth Orders” to combat financial crime and corruption as well as making Obstruction of Justice as well as Abuse of Office into criminal offences (these last two surprised me because I never realised that we had no such criminal laws already in place).

The Board also encouraged the creation of binding Codes of Ethics to stop public officials from engaging in improper behaviour; again something which should be obvious but, as we have seen from the unbelievable behaviour of MPs such as Rosianne Cutajar, nothing is obvious any more.  There she sits in Parliament, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, refusing to resign her seat, in the belief she did nothing wrong by brokering a property deal for Yorgen Fenech (who was already a suspect), and by probably evading tax to boot. 

Further recommendations cover the role of journalists including the appointment of an independent commissioner for journalism to implement laws and regulations designed to protect the freedom of the media, the safety of journalists, and the right to information.  All these are obviously crucial and urgent, given the very reason the inquiry was held in the first place.

It also proposes a Code of Ethics for journalists, which in my view is direly needed and just as urgent. This code was supposed to have been established already, way back in 2011, by the Press Ethics Commission but for various reasons (too convoluted to get into here) nothing ever came out of it.  A quick look at various sites which pass themselves off as ‘news portals’ is enough to confirm why we cannot assume that some self-styled ‘journalists’ (or those who run the websites) know and understand what ethics really mean.  When so many people obtain their information from social media and are so quick to share articles which don’t have a shred of decency (or news value), then this need becomes even more pressing. 

So there we have it: if PM Robert Abela wants to roll up his sleeves and get going on these recommendations, he has his work cut out for him.  

During his press conference, Abela said he would start a process to reach the aims of the reports’ recommendations on the protection of journalists and other constitutional reforms. He also promised to work with the Opposition to deliver the legislative measures required. 

I hope he means it and that this is not just empty posturing to placate the public. For this is not a time for platitudes and rhetoric but a time when the nation is crying out for dignified statesmanship and leadership more than ever before.  

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