There are some days when working in the media industry you just cannot forget, and the 20th of April 2017 stands out like few other days do.
It had been coming. After over a year of chasing after Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi, of trying to locate the elusive Keith Schembri and of watching in sheer disbelief as the local Panama scandal turned out to be part of a global exposé, we were finally getting to the bottom of it.
Egrant, the mysterious offshore company named alongside those of Mizzi and Schembri, had belonged to the Prime Minister and his wife all along.
Daphne Caruana Galizia had teased the nation a week earlier that she will reveal Egrant’s owner and newsrooms were on edge – journalists constantly refreshing Daphne’s blog and muttering amongst themselves whether it could possibly be true.
And then the bomb dropped.
I rushed to Marsa to question Muscat and Mizzi, who were scheduled to inaugurate a monument at the old power station, and then quickly sped off to Castille when I found out that the Prime Minister was set to deliver an urgently-scheduled press conference. I arrived late but still got the gist of it.
“This is the biggest lie in Malta’s political history,” Muscat said in a somewhat shaky voice. “I am challenging anyone who has any evidence to back up this lie to publish it immediately.”
Afterwards, outside Castille, another journalist and I tried to wrap our heads around the revelations.
“But could it be true?’
“Muscat was quite clear…”
“Yes, but Daphne said documents have been uploaded to the cloud.”
“Egrant must belong to someone powerful.”
“But the Prime Minister? It just seems too dramatic to be true…”
Then everything happened all at once. Caruana Galizia provided details, down to the last decimal point, of bank transfers carried out between Egrant and the Aliyevs. Then a Net TV journalist caught the owner of Pilatus Bank leaving the bank through the backdoor with two suitcases, while his colleague accosted the police commissioner – caught like a deer in the headlights – outside a rabbit restaurant. Then a plane left Malta in the dead of night, stopping at Baku before flying off to Dubai. It was a real-life tragicomedy.
I woke up in a daze and tried to process the events of the previous night over a coffee. The Prime Minister, the Aliyevs, the dodgy banker, the incompetent police chief. This had all the makings of a blockbuster and almost felt too dramatic to be true, but then again it did make sense.
Why did Muscat travel to Azerbaijan to meet Ilham Aliyev without inviting any media or civil servants? Why did Muscat refuse to sack Mizzi and Schembri when they were caught red-handed in an attempt to launder money through dodgy offshore structures? Why did the Pilatus Bank owner ignore the NET TV camera crew if he was innocent? Why, for that matter, did the powerful Aliyevs decide to trust their money in the hands of such a new Maltese bank? What was in those suitcases? If Nexia BT ordered three Panama companies and two of these belonged to Mizzi and Schembri, then who else could the third Panama company belong to?
How could this not be proof?
The more I processed these thoughts, the more I was gripped by a completely alien feeling. Fear. Fear that I’m living in a country whose Prime Minister is in the pocket of a brutal dictator. Fear that my country is being governed by a cabal of crooks who only care about getting as rich as possible so they could then live a life of luxury in some faraway land while leaving the rest of us to deal with their mess. I remembered that feeling of fear when I cast my vote just over a month later.
It is normal and healthy for journalists, even those working in the same newsroom, to debate the merits of a story and to disagree on which angle it should be pursued from. Yet the Egrant story, fuelled by all the emotions of an election campaign, created rifts within the Maltese media landscape like nothing I have witnessed before or since. It felt like we were hit by a wave which could drag us in either of two opposite directions. You either fundamentally believed the story and were convinced we were being governed by crooks or you believed this was all one big lie – cooked up by a desperate Opposition who lacked the brainpower to come up with innovative and inspiring policies. Of course, each side believed the other side were either being used as political pawns or were gullible fools. It was an extremely toxic atmosphere.
Since the magisterial inquiry was published two weeks ago, I’ve been asking myself over and over again how and why I believed the story despite the lack of documentary evidence and whether I let my emotions get the better of me in my coverage of it.
First of all, I was convinced throughout the election campaign that Daphne Caruana Galizia was going to publish the mysterious documents, that she was keeping them up her sleeve so that she could check-mate Muscat when the time was right.
I had no reason to doubt Caruana Galizia. After all, she had been scooping all the Maltese media houses on the Panama Papers and the follow-up FIAU investigations into the protagonists for over a year, reducing professional newsrooms into attempting to give their own twists on stories that appeared on her blog.
But even if she didn’t publish the documents, Caruana Galizia was not the only person putting her face to the allegations. Why on earth would Maria Efimova lie in public about something so serious that it could even have diplomatic repercussions? Yes, she was facing criminal charges, but she was clearly intelligent enough to be trusted by Ali Sadr to be his assistant.
I interviewed Efimova for an hour over the phone on the anniversary of the Egrant story and intentionally kept asking for small details to her story that she wouldn’t have given thought to if she was lying. She didn’t trip up once then, although as it turned out, she did trip up when she was being grilled by the magisterial inquiry. If she is a liar, then she is a damn good one.
Also, while Simon Busuttil and the media have received most of the flak in the wake of the inquiry’s conclusions, I feel everyone is forgetting how so many people had believed the story. Not just blind Nazzjonalisti but finance, banking, accounting and law professionals too. Perhaps they were caught up in the emotional wave too.
And the government’s overall behaviour in the run-up to the story did not help matters either. I watched Pjazza on ONE TV yesterday and heard Minister Helena Dalli talk about how actions have consequences – in reference to Adrian Delia’s lack of foresight when he asked Busuttil to resign from the PN.
That’s true, but inactions have consequences too. Muscat’s steadfast refusal to sack Mizzi and Schembri despite the evidence piling up against them and despite them blatantly contradicting each other’s version of events has consequently made him seem suspicious himself in this long drawn-out saga. And this made the Egrant story truthy, easy to digest to those who had been following the Panama story from Day One.
Magistrate Aaron Bugeja’s Egrant inquiry doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre for people who want to believe the story is true. Not only did both Caruana Galizia and Efimova fail to produce the document, but they blatantly contradicted each other’s versions of events in their respective testimonies. Critics of the inquiry have approached it from several angles but no one has yet been able to explain this jarring discrepancy.
It is early days but it is evident that something, somewhere went badly wrong for what turned out to be the predominant narrative in the independent press.
There are a couple more inquiries coming up and there’s bound to be more twists to this Panama story, so what lessons should the media and the public draw from Egrant? To be more critical and sceptical, even when a story is reproduced in a reputable foreign paper, to not fall into the trap of confirmation bias and to challenge your own opinion and your own emotions even if it feels incredibly uncomfortable. Not everything is always as it seems.