In the summer 2018 issue of Index on Censorship magazine Caroline Muscat takes a closer look at the truths this year’s European Capital of Culture, Valetta in Malta, is hiding
The sprawl of construction sites represents the reality of Malta. It’s a sign of progress, never mind the fact that planning laws are farcical. The country’s affluence is shown by the number of cars on the road, never mind the traffic congestion. Its freedom is evidenced in the number of media outlets and news portals, never mind the fact that they all offer similar content. It’s all about appearance, not substance. Scratch beneath the surface and the problems start to appear.
“National pride has reached historic levels,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told more than 100,000 people who flocked to the nation’s capital, Valletta, for its inauguration as Europe’s Capital of Culture 2018. The announcement was made as the country was grappling with the assassination of its most prominent journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, and as accusations of a collapse in the rule of law continued to haunt Malta.
Restaurants offering mouth-watering dishes are found across the length and breadth of Malta’s islands, but while digging into a bruschetta few stop to question the sudden influx of Sicilian restaurants that are suspected of being money-laundering fronts for the Sicilian mafia.
Operation Beta, led by the Italian authorities in 2017, culminated in the arrest of 30 people as part of a major clampdown on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to a Sicilian family, the Santapaola-Erculanos, linked to the mafia by the Italian media. Almost a year later, Italian police cracked an operation involving Sicilians, Maltese and Libyans smuggling Libyan fuel into the European market. Once again, a link to the Santapaola-Erculano family emerged. A look at the histories of the mafia clans reveals deep family connections to Malta as a hub from which to extend their reach and profits.
The links date back to 1974, when a Sicilian man and his bride went to the Maltese island of Gozo on their honeymoon. They loved the island so much they frequently returned. To the locals who interacted with him in Pjazza San Frangisk, in Victoria, he was known simply as Toto.
But Toto was Salvatore Riina, the mafia boss who terrorised Sicily and made the Italian State tremble while making friends in Malta.
Over the years, Malta has continued to attract shady characters, including politically exposed politicians, from countries including India, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. There are clear risks in probing too deeply into the shadows of modern Malta – not that this is obvious to anyone landing in the country for a fortnight of sun and sea. Popular events, such as the annual music festival the Isle of MTV, continue to offer a distraction on the islands that were once a safe haven for tourists and locals. But the recent release of the Panama Papers linked a Maltese minister, Konrad Mizzi, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, to $1.6m payments to Dubai companies. Both deny the claims of payments.
It is now clear that a political party elected in 2013 on the promise of change was not thinking of adding transparency or media freedom. Since the Panama Papers revelations, journalists have piled up stories of scandals, but nothing has changed. Deals selling off the country’s assets continue to be made, shrouded in secrecy. And in the midst of all this, calls for justice for an assassinated journalist continue to echo in the air.