When Robert Abela’s predecessor lost all control of circumstances and authority over events, he signed the document he had been rejecting for two years: setting up an inquiry to determine whether the state, including of course the government he had been leading, was at least in part responsible for the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Having pledged ‘continuity’ with the conduct of that government, Robert Abela made his own the sins of his political father, which is why he’s conducting himself in exactly the same way Joseph Muscat would be in identical circumstances.
His statement of yesterday, reacting to the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry board’s decision to ignore the ultimatum he had set them, was read out of the script that Joseph Muscat had written when Aaron Bugeja started looking into the Egrant scandal.
“You will have to assume responsibility for the consequences,” Joseph Muscat had told Aaron Bugeja. As it happened Aaron Bugeja produced a report that exculpated Joseph Muscat so there were no consequences to be faced. No unpleasant ones in any case as we’re expected to assume Aaron Bugeja’s subsequent promotion to judgeship had nothing to do with that inquiry.
Michael Mallia and Joe Said Pullicino are beyond the use of any promotion. Abigail Lofaro seems exquisitely unperturbed by the prime minister’s bullying. Robert Abela does not like what he’s seeing. And he wants his supporters not to like what they’re seeing because it will not take decades of scholarly experience and deep knowledge of legal esoterica to draw conclusions from the evidence heard by the inquiry. It will take courage to defy him and his bullying though because the question is no longer whether the state could have prevented Daphne’s killing or acted properly on it when it happened, but to what extent was the state positively involved in enabling it to happen and then covering it up.
In seeking to cut the inquiry short and now in exposing the judges to a partisan lynching, Robert Abela is alone answering the questions in the inquiry’s terms of reference.
The judges heard witnesses tell them that Daphne Caruana Galizia was portrayed by the Labour Party media as an agent of, sometimes even the mastermind behind, the Nationalist Opposition. They plastered her image all over One TV, their partisan billboards and their media in order to take away from her, her role as an independent journalist and attribute partisan and, therefore, untruthful motivations.
As things are evolving the judges are now being served with a personal taste of precisely that treatment. Their work is being labelled “political” which is code for “Nationalist”. Denied their independence, inconvenient questions they ask and, when they come to it, inconvenient findings in their reports, will be presumed not to be grounded in truth but in lies that serve the partisan interests of Robert Abela’s political enemies.
And in the self-same act of seeking to shut down the inquiry, Robert Abela is asking the question the inquiry asked many witnesses about whether state institutions sought to cover up the truth about Daphne’s killing or whether they did leave no stone unturned to coin a phrase.
The judges are now themselves feeling the sort of pressure honest cops and prosecutors, magistrates and judges, civil servants, regulators, journalists, even that rare breed of honest government MP were put under to hush up the truth when revealing it risked political damage to Joseph Muscat and his doppelgänger Robert Abela.
The judges leading the inquiry are being told to stop, ‘or else…,’ risking unspecified consequences. It is a bit ironic that all this is happening this week because there are so many references, seemingly separate and irrelevant, on which to draw.
There’s the decision by Magistrate Charmaine Galea who yesterday acquitted Neville Gafà finding that his intentionally vague “we will stop you” to an Italian journalist reporting critically on the Maltese government did not amount to a threat. I suppose she will think that “the board must carry the responsibility for its decision and suffer the consequences” does not amount to a threat either.
The judges will match this sort of thing against witnesses they heard. They too heard Neville Gafà and other henchmen recruited by Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela to bully and intimidate critics, carefully stretching the limits of the law to use political power to bash any resistance or opposition.
Robert Abela is doing this too. Technically the inquiry is not a judicial process and therefore this process ends with a report sent to the prime minister, the boss of the executive branch. But there’s a reason that judges (or retired judges) were placed to conduct this inquiry. It was to ensure that people who are independent of the government conduct an inquiry into that government. If a bunch of so-called “permanent” secretaries were appointed to investigate the conduct of the ministers that have the power to decide what happens next to their career, this would not be a credible process at all.
Therefore, though this is not strictly a judicial process, this explicit bullying by Robert Abela on Michael Mallia, Joseph Said Pullicino and Abigail Lofaro is not just pressure placed on an inquiry board but an onslaught on judicial independence.
I repeat. Michael Mallia, Joseph Said Pullicino and Abigail Lofaro sit on the board because they are judges and because judges are supposed to be independent. The nuance that this process is administrative and not judicial is intended to be lost because if they dress like judges, act and talk like judges, sit in a judge’s courtroom and have been judges for decades, we are meant to perceive them as fiercely independent of the government as all judges are, in theory, meant to be.
Bullying them shows just what the government thinks of judicial independence.
In the coming hours, an Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice will express their opinion on whether Repubblika has a case in arguing that the manner with which judges were chosen by prime ministers in Malta was in breach of EU requirements for judicial independence. It is a very narrow question that courts may now find moot since under Repubblika’s pressure the government changed those rules.
But that would not mean the judiciary is independent here. Look at Edward Zammit Lewis. He said yesterday that if the judges sitting on the Daphne inquiry board do not comply with Robert Abela’s instructions, we would be living under the law of the jungle.
It is the most explicit statement yet that the government considers the princely edicts of the Labour Party leader as equivalent to law and that everyone, even judges, must comply with those princely edicts or “suffer the consequences”.
Consider that if the credibility of an inquiry into government conduct depends on the independence on that inquiry, then surely deciding on when the inquiry must fold should not be a matter for the government that is being investigated. Think back to the inquiry conducted in 2014 into the quality of concrete used for the A&E building at Mater Dei. The inquiry was due to report in December 2014 but only filed in June 2015 after several extensions were granted by the government.
They did that because the concrete was commissioned under a PN administration and an inquiry finding the concrete had been below par would make the Nationalists, not them, look bad.
In this case, however, they say it is the law of the jungle to extend an inquiry into the state’s conduct before and after the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia because they fully expect the findings to make them look bad.
In exercising that discretion (whether to extend time-limits or not to) on the basis of political and partisan considerations, the executive is violating the independence of the inquiry process altogether, and publicly flogging the judiciary as a whole.
The fact that Robert Abela’s conduct in and of itself testifies to the government’s role in demonising those it perceives to be standing in the way of its unbridled authority, to the executive’s expectations that institutions work for it, and act only in so far as they carry forward its will, and to Joseph Muscat’s gang’s effort to prevent institutions from giving justice to Daphne Caruana Galizia and her surviving family, does not put us in a happy place.
But what makes this an even unhappier place is the glaring fact that more than three years since Daphne was killed, over a year since the inquiry started, more than 100 witnesses and over 80 open hearings later, the government has not learnt anything at all. It still thinks it’s ok to demonise its opponents, to undermine the institutions and to rule the country as if it belonged to them.