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Malta institutions under scrutiny after journalist’s murder

December 14, 2018

MILAN (AP) — The Mediterranean island nation of Malta needs better checks and balances to address the way the prime minister’s powers currently eclipse other institutions, experts from Europe’s top human rights body said on Friday.

The critical assessment issued by the Council of Europe’s advisory body — known as the Venice Commission and comprised of legal experts — comes as Malta’s institutions are under increasing fire following Panama Papers revelations involving a government minister and the murder of a journalist investigating government corruption.

A health minister in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Labour government lost his post in 2016 due to revelations that he opened a company in Panama, but there has been no police investigation despite public pressure and he retained the title of minister. Calls for the police commissioner’s resignation following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 have also gone unanswered. The imbalance in Malta’s institutions has been a topic at the European Parliament.

The experts recommended strengthening the role of the president; increasing salaries of parliamentarians so they can focus on legislative work; reducing the prime minister’s powers to make appointments; changes in the way judicial vacancies are filled; and abolishing the double role of attorney general as both government adviser and prosecutor.

Malta’s government declined to comment, pending the filing of the full text of the assessment expected next week. But it noted that the criticism focused on “laws and systems that were passed or implemented years back.”

The experts noted that while a judicial reform led by the current government was a step in the right direction, it fell short of ensuring the independence of the judiciary.

The Venice Commission said that the power of the prime minister “widely overshadows other government bodies, including the president, parliament, cabinet of ministers, judiciary and ombudsman.” It also found that paying parliamentarians part-time salaries harmed their ability to operate independently from the prime minister’s office, and that the president did not have sufficient powers to provide checks and balances.

The experts, who visited Malta last month, said that the prime minister wields considerable influence over judicial appointments, and that the imbalance “is accentuated by the weakness of civil society and independent media.”

They cited the murder of Caruana Galizia, who was investigating corruption and money-laundering. While the Commission said it is beyond its mandate to examine the truth of the allegations in Galizia’s reporting, it stressed Malta’s obligation to ensure that media and civil society “play unencumbered and active roles in holding authorities accountable.”

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Stephen Calleja contributed from Valletta, Malta.

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