The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Tentacles of impunity described in Daphne inquiry still present today – Repubblika head

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 14 April 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

The tentacles of impunity described in the public inquiry that looked into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia are still present today, Acting President of Repubblika Vicki Ann Cremona has said.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Cremona questioned what has been done, concretely, to eliminate them. “Very little. A lot of makeup.” She said that clear, concrete action has to be taken on past scandals, and on those which emerge.

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I'm fed up of certain people crying victim when, in reality, they weren't victims at all. Being involved in the sale of the three hospitals doesn't make you a victim. Being mentioned in the Panama Papers doesn’t make you a victim," she said.

Asked to describe the state of the rule of law today, when compared to the years under Joseph Muscat’s government, she said that it still leaves a lot to be desired.

"We've seen a lot of lip-service, but has there been any concrete action? Have we seen anyone really pay for what they did? Have we seen major players being asked to pay back the money they owe to the state, either due to overspending or as they had betrayed the State? No. The rule of law is applicable once there is concrete action to ensure that the rule of law is obeyed.”

During the interview, she also said that there are too many backbenchers completely in the government's pocket. “We always refer to the Westminster model, but this model is based on the fact that the backbenchers give hell to the ministers in the UK. Backbenchers are there to create discussion, and even say when they don't agree. Where is this model in Malta? One thing I seriously agreed with was the Nationalist Party saying it would not accept any President coming from Joseph Muscat's Cabinet. That was a very important position they took."

She also said that “Malta is fantastic for sweeping under the carpet. In Malta politicians always say, 'didn't the others do the same thing?' This concept is wrong. One evil does not pardon another; both should be taken to task."

‘Our Civil Service is a shambles’

In terms of strengthening oversight on the Executive, she said checks and balances need to be improved. "To start with, this would mean having a civil service that does not change with the government, and where people are not placed in positions because they need electoral favours, but be placed in positions because they are competent. One of the strengths of the Westminster model is that the civil service does not change, is made up of professionals who advance slowly in their career, and who do not have to face hurdles due to their political colour etc."

"Our civil service is a shambles,” she said, alleging that there are too many people in positions of responsibility who are not able to handle that responsibility, either because they are not prepared for it, or are not competent. “There are also too many people at lower levels who have been placed there not because of their qualifications or proper screening, but because our political system works on favours." She said that strengthening the civil service and making it more neutral and separate from any government needs to be a priority.

She also said that government agencies need to function better. "If there is a civil service that doesn't depend on the government, then agencies should also have the same structure, where they are held accountable if they do not do their work properly."

Repubblika has two key priorities for the coming months. The first is to keep fighting for the recommendations stemming from the public inquiries into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the death of Jean Paul Sofia to be implemented.

“Too often in politics token reforms were made.”

“What we want is core action. The recommendations by the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry have been out for over three years, but they haven’t been put into practice yet. We want them to be implemented.”

The NGO’s second priority is that a discussion about the constitution, or a constitutional convention, takes place. “It is important that the methodology be properly laid out.” She said that Repubblika had issued proposals in this regard years ago, having sent the document to then President George Vella. “There was no reaction,” she said. “If it's only going to be discussed in parliament, you won't get anywhere.” She said that the discussion should include society as a whole.

Cremona hopes President will be a rallying point for the Maltese

Asked about President Myriam Spiteri Debono, Cremona said she hopes that “she will be a rallying point for the Maltese, and that the Maltese people will stop reasoning in terms of political colours, but will reason in terms of truth and justice. My hope is that because she does not carry any baggage, she can be seen as a beacon that leads, disregarding political colour, looking at things in terms of whether they are right or wrong."

As for whether, since the appointment of a President now requires a two-thirds majority, she believes the Office of the President should be given more powers, Cremona said that the President "should at least have the power to send a bill back to Parliament to be re-discussed, with the President's objections being clearly laid out and made public." This, she said, could also lead to further discussion at national level to help see what the people think of such a bill.

In her first speech, President Spiteri Debono made reference to the need to do more regarding the implementation of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry recommendations. Cremona hopes that this will spur the government to move forward with their implementation. "That the President in her first official speech had the pluck to actually state things the way they are, for me is important."

"There was a silence following the journalist’s death. Repubblika filled that gap as the silence was too loud. There was an apology made, but it was wishy-washy.  I've never seen anybody from government go and lay flowers, either at Bidnija or at her memorial. The fact that the highest representative of the State (referring to the newly appointed President of Malta) actually said what she said, obviously means that she is giving it the importance it deserves. Daphne Caruana Galizia was not just a person, but was also a journalist, and journalism is the fourth pillar of society, as the President said. So if journalism is the fourth pillar, it means we need to start tackling SLAPP lawsuits, an issue which has been ignored. We need to look at the way journalists are hounded when they say or write something that is unpleasant."

‘Democracy was being silenced’

She said that the President's speech should make people stand up and realise the significance of the murder of the journalist, "because the fact that a journalist was killed in our country means that that democracy was being silenced. The fact that there wasn't enough reaction to that means that there was a tacit, if not approval, certainly of indifference. The fact that the President actually said what she said in her opening speech brings these problems to the fore again."

In her speech, President Spiteri Debono said: "The wound generated by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is still wide open and bleeding. Healing is a must in order that this horrendous episode be wound up. Once and for all. Otherwise, we cannot move forward. Otherwise, its fallout shall continue to haunt us."

Asked what is needed to heal the wound, Cremona said: "First you need to recognise that you have one (…) Then you have to start seriously thinking about how this can be healed. Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed, there is nothing we can do about that. Apologising to her family is a good step, but it is not enough. I believe the apology also has to take the form of better protecting our journalists, and ensuring that journalists can state what they have to state without fear of vengeance. Vengeance can take many forms, such as not giving adverts to platforms, or not giving interviews to some, but only to others. That is where I want to see a difference. I want to see journalists protected and for there to be no discrimination."

"I also want to see the Daphne’s law approved in Brussels to be seriously applied in Malta,” Cremona said. “How can we help 'atone' for the crime that was committed? By protecting others like Daphne Caruana Galizia."

Repubblika had called for the resignation of Police commissioner Angelo Gafa, and Cremona confirmed that this is still the NGO's position. "If Angelo Gafa does not suddenly divorce himself from government interests and start really being the third pillar, then yes."

As for what changes are needed within the police force, Cremona, said the same as are needed within the civil service. "The police are a separate entity that is there to check against abuse."

Told that the government has always held that it does not interfere in the operations of the police force, she said: "it’s quite interesting that it doesn't interfere as somehow they seem to be walking on similar lines, and you'd almost think there's a sort-of symbiosis between the governmental interests and police non-action. We are not stupid, and the public should be credited with more intelligence by the people we have put in power."

She was asked about the length of time police investigations take, and the length of times court cases take to conclude. “Yes, we are concerned that cases take years and that police inquiries, which are secret, also take long." She said that one can only somewhat see the result of a police or magisterial inquiry when someone is charged in court." She believes there needs to be more transparency when it comes to magisterial inquiries.

Prime Minister handled scandals ‘very badly’

As for how she believes Robert Abela has handled the scandals that have occurred under him while he has been Prime Minister, including the benefits fraud racket, driving licence scandal, and being in charge for a time when the hospitals deal was still in effect, she said he handled them "very badly. The feeling is that it is a reactive and not a proactive impetus. One senses a certain amount of reluctance, and a certain amount of scapegoating, in the sense that one person will be caught and once that person is taken to court, then all is fine. All is not fine, as behind such a person there would be a whole structure, which needs to be investigated at least."

"Has the way he handled them won him any credibility? Frankly I think it hasn't."

‘People were there because they were angry’

As for how the Prime Minister handled the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry, she described it as a scandal. "I admire Jean Paul Sofia's mother, as the inquiry would not have taken place if it weren't for her. I admire her as she fought against all odds."

One thing that impressed her, standing in the Castille square on the day the Prime Minister U-turned and announced that a public inquiry would be held, "was that for once there was no political colour. There were people from Labour, nationalists, people from ADPD, people who support no party, people from NGOs. People were there because they were angry and they thought that enough was enough. I felt proud to be Maltese in that moment. Proud that people said this could not go on."

"Like Jean Paul Sofia, let us also not forget that there have been other victims, like Miriam Pace, and workers in the sector. These victims also need to be remembered, and justice must also be done for them."

Cremona served as Repubblika's president once in the past, and was in the post in 2019 during the turmoil that led to Joseph Muscat's resignation from office. Asked whether the public, since then, has become more receptive to the rule of law goals, she said that when they first started protesting they were very few in number. "What was important is that when we needed the people to be there, because the call for justice became so loud, people responded. It showed that there is a part of society that holds its leaders to account, and that is the role of an NGO like ours."

Referring to the 2019 protests, she said that there were many young people in attendance. "The feeling in 2019 was that people had enough. The government had tried to play down Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination by ignoring it, thinking it would go away. Then, when we began holding them to account, they refused to take responsibility. We had to fight for two years for the public inquiry to launch. At a certain point people said enough.”

During the interview, Cremona also said that Repubblika has no intention of becoming a political party. “We are there to be a neutral body that does not belong to any political party, but which can hold political parties to account."
Robert Aquilina had been the face of Repubblika for three and a half years, but had quite an impact. Asked if Repubblika will struggle to fill the void he leaves behind, she said: "let's hope not as that would mean I would have failed. What is important is to acknowledge that Robert Aquilina brought the NGO to a very important level, and it is good that people now demand that level of us." She said that everyone has their own style of leadership, but that does not mean that she will give up on any part of the fight or that she would shy away from continuing to defend the rule of law.

Asked about speculation surrounding whether Joseph Muscat will run as an MEP candidate, she questioned whether the EU is now going to be a way to be 'kicked upstairs'. "We've kicked too many people upstairs, it’s about time it stops. The fact that this is even conceivable is not acceptable. If Joseph Muscat completely clears his name, then we would give him credibility, but he is not credible now. There are too many question marks over his head." She mentioned his sources of wealth, saying that this also needs to be cleared up. "There are too many question marks for him to even be proposed. It’s a lack of seriousness."

 

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