ROME – With Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat set to resign this month following revelations that top government officials were implicated in the murder of an investigative journalist, the country’s bishops have voiced shock at the state of affairs, insisting that while the past can’t be changed, a new course can be set for the future.

In an opinion column published in the Times of Malta Jan. 5, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and head of the Maltese bishops’ conference, admitted that as the political situation continues to digress, “One cannot escape the reality that Malta is caught in the eye of a storm.”

“People I meet express a sense of bewilderment. They cannot understand what has happened and how we could possibly be in such turmoil,” he said, noting that he himself has had trouble understanding how his country arrived at this point.

However, Scicluna insisted that he also has faith “that hope’s ‘ethereal balm’ can heal this gaping wound in our present to enable us to forge a better future.”

“We may not be able to turn back the clock,” he said, “but we can reset it, provided we summon our collective goodwill and undertake a profound and sincere soul-searching exercise to rediscover the principles and values upon which our society has over many years been formed.”

Scicluna’s column came on the tails of further protests outside the Maltese parliament over the weekend.

Organized by civil society groups including Repubblika and Occupy Justice, a large protest Sunday drew hundreds of people carrying pictures of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and banners calling Muscat “the 2019 most corrupt man in the world,” according to reports.

Known for her in-depth stories exposing government corruption, including among Malta’s top political figures, Caruana Galizia was often threatened for her work, and was murdered in October 2017 by a car bomb while she was driving from her home in Bidnija.

Her death sparked outrage throughout Malta. Officials pledged an immediate in-depth investigation into her murder, however, that investigation was largely stalled until late 2019, when it was revealed that top government officials were implicated in Caruana Galizia’s death, including Muscat’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

Maltese business tycoon Yorgen Fenech was also charged on multiple counts in connection with the murder and, though pleading not guilty, he allegedly told courts that he received regular tips about the investigation from Schembri and advice on what to say during interrogations.

Muscat has been part of the Labour Party since 2008 and was named Malta’s Prime Minister in 2013 after having served for several years as a member of European Parliament. However, facing pressure from the European Union over the revelations and the subsequent unrest, Muscat announced his intention to resign in January 2020.

Rather than stepping down immediately in the new year, Muscat opted to stay in his post until Jan. 12, when one of two contestants – Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne or Labour MP Robert Abela – would take his place.

As protests and unrest have continued, so has pressure from E.U. leaders. In a Dec. 16 resolution, the European Parliament urged the E.U. to open a rule of law dialogue with Malta – an initial step toward an Article 7 procedure that could culminate with Malta losing its E.U. voting rights.

In the resolution, MEPs indicated that there could be a threat to the credibility of ongoing investigations should Muscat remain in power, saying they are “deeply concerned about the integrity and credibility of the investigations into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia” and are aware of “the widespread negative perceptions of the government’s actions in this regard, as well as the declining trust and credibility in the institutions.”

In his column, Scicluna insisted that a democracy “cannot function without respect for truth and justice – in practice as well as in theory – at its core.”

“Truth requires the relevant authorities being given the freedom and resources they need to ascertain all facts about wrongdoing, without exception; while justice demands that accountability applies to all, irrespective of position or title,” he said, calling these “fundamental pillars” that would “ring hollow” without the support of effective institutions and the confidence of the people.

Good governance, he said, “is not a label of convenience,” but is “the indispensable fulcrum of our Republic, of our State. Nor can a democratic country function effectively unless its people display tolerance and respect for one another.”

Scicluna stressed the need for an increase in the generosity and solidarity expressed by citizens during the Christmas season, saying these attitudes shouldn’t be seasonal, but part of one’s daily life.

“That is why we, as the bishops we profess to be, called for unity during this saddening period of strife – because we believe our country needs a calm sense of purpose if we are to rebuild our common home together,” he said.

To achieve this, he said, there is need to reflect on one’s individual behavior, fighting corruption and shunning a “me mentality” that prompts individuals to “ruin the environment for our personal gain, or claim for ourselves what belongs to everybody.”

Instead, citizens should ask themselves what they can do to serve and contribute to their country, he said, noting that while divergent opinions on what to do will continue to exist, “we are ultimately one nation and will only make our situation better if we move forward as one nation, irrespective of our differences, promoting peace and justice together.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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