Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Don’t come the raw prawn, Keith

Sometimes I wish I was more like Keith A. Galea. You see, I have boundless admiration for people who selflessly act as human shields for their beloved political masters – dutifully craning their necks out to take all the flak, oblivious to the fact that it will be their own faces to come out dripping with egg-yolk as a consequence.
It takes a certain nobility of spirit (not to mention dimness of wit) to gloriously rush to the defence of a beleaguered minister, without pausing to check if there is any truth to the allegations in the first place.
Honestly: who wouldn’t turn into mush at the sight of such touching, fawning naivety?

It is partly for this reason that I have so far resisted the temptation to reply to Keith A. Galea 's various taunts and allegations – the latest can be viewed on this newspaper. After all, there is hardly any satisfaction to be drawn by turning the big guns onto such an insignificant little target. (I imagine it would be a little like using a purse-seine net to trammel a buzullieqa... but then, I never understood my fish, now did I, Keith?)

But in his letter today, Keith A. Galea has gone a small step too far. He claims that I “turned down” an invitation to the Ministry to view documents relating to Malta’s bluefin tuna trade. For accuracy’s sake, I feel I have to point that it was more a “summons” than an invitation; and in any case, it was not to show me any documents, but simply to hand me a print-out of the Fisheries Director’s official letter of reply... which could just as easily have been sent to our offices by e-mail. (Ask Paul Borg Olivier how easy it actually is, he’ll tell you all about it...)

But let’s leave this aside for the time being. What I can’t fathom at all is how Keith A. Galea could publicly claim that I never showed up, when in actual fact I went in person to his precious Ministry not once, but twice... and on both occasions, Mr Galea himself was present to shower me with saliva and sarcasm alike.
(Small qualification: Galea attended only the first meeting, but as I got the venue for the second one wrong, and went to the Ministry in Valletta instead of the Fisheries Division in Marsa by mistake, it was Galea who directed me to where I was meant to go.)

Strangely, though, barely three months later he seems to have forgotten all about our close encounters last summer. Well, if Keith A. Galea has the memory of one of the smaller fishes his Ministry so lovingly dissects, mine is more like that of the proverbial elephant that a certain someone he works with resembles so much.
In other words, Keith A. Galea might not remember me, but I certainly remember him. Oh yes indeed. I remember the shining elegance of his impeccable manners, and the sublime crassness with which he proved unable to comprehend the difference between a “transhipment” and a “re-export” (this, mind you, from someone whose job it is to regulate precisely such transactions). But the highlight, as far as I recall, was that priceless moment when Keith A. Galea – unable to contain his indignation as I refused to simply fall to my knees and melt into a puddle in his Master’s urbane presence – suddenly blurted out: “U int x’iz-**** tifhem fit-tonn?” (or words to that effect, anyway). I’ve been chuckling about it ever since.

So much for the first meeting. At the second, there was a good deal more shouting than I cared to put up with – not from Keith, I hasten to add – but still, how can he claim I wasn’t even there? And I had every intention to go to the Ministry for a third visit, too... until I received a phone-call from one of the three local fisheries officials empowered to sign statistical documents (of the kind I was supposed to be shown during those stormy “meetings”, but never was).
I received the call one Friday in late August, and was informed that fisheries officials had finally gone over the Japanese trade statistics I had supplied them with two weeks earlier (which reminds me: Keith A. Galea omits to mention that I passed onto the Ministry all the documents I had before going to print... something very few journalists in the world would even think of doing).
Anyway: I was assured that my figures were correct – the same figures that contrasted sharply with intelligence reports about the amount of tuna that was actually available for export – but this time round, the explanation for the discrepancy was entirely different from anything I had heard before.
I was asked over the phone to forget the previous “transhipments” excuse (which by the way we had already published), and instead to accept a new one: that Malta and Japan employed different methods of weighing fish, resulting in a discrepancy of over 5,000 tonnes.

In other words, I was suddenly expected to believe that because of this different weighing system, a quantity of fish worth a scarcely credible €100 million (at €20 a kilo) could simply be argued out of existence... just a perfectly normal, acceptable, eight-digit difference in calculation.
Needless to add I did not go to the Ministry again, as by this time it was patently obvious that there would be no point whatsoever.

Now let us turn – with difficulty, I admit – away from my fond memories of Mr Keith A. Galea’s distinguished politeness, and over to the substance of his letter today.
He alludes to a mistake made by the European Commission – the same mistake George Pullicino seems to somehow think has exculpated his ministry on all counts... (despite the fact that it was made in early November, and the allegations themselves have been ongoing for around two years); but this has already been dealt with in an editorial note on the same page.
Keith A. Galea also claims that the allegations published in this newspaper about Malta’s tuna exports to Japan – for which, I might add, we are now in court on 12 separate counts – are “unfounded”. (If I suspected he knew how to read, I would invite him to look the words up in a dictionary. But let’s be realistic here.)
Keith has evidently forgotten that the original allegations - i.e., that Malta somehow managed to export 11,000 tonnes of tuna to Japan, over a period of time in which there could not have been more than a very maximum of 6,700 tonnes available for export – were made in a detailed report published by Greenpeace International, with similar claims being made in a Japanese newspaper, Asashi Shinbum.
Ah, the Ministry explained: but not all exports consist of locally farmed tuna. At first - i.e., before I received that phone-call – the official excuse was that 5,000 tonnes of the above mentioned 11,000 tonnes had been transhipped from third countries to final destination Japan. So I spoke to an official of the NOAA Foundation (USA), who directed me to the relevant international tuna regulations, which stated in clear and quite uncomplicated language that for a quantity of tuna to count as a re-export, it first had to be first officially imported to Malta.
I invite anyone to check Eurostat data on Malta’s imports for 2007/2008, and tot up how much of the transhipped tuna concerned was actually registered as imports.
Meanwhile, from Dr Gruppetta’s endless variations of the same letter to our newspaper, numerous inconsistencies and downright impossibilities have been discerned.
There were transactions involving double-registered ships, and amounts of tuna sold to companies which under scrutiny turned out not to exist at all. For instance, I am still waiting for an explanation of how the Ministry could pass off a company based in Belize as “Spanish” (I suggest Keith A. Galea ask Father Christmas for a World Atlas this year, as he evidently needs one)... but more to the point: how did a Maltese export to a South American country possibly come to be included as part of Japan’s official 11,000+ tonnes imported from Malta?

But the latest twist in this incredible saga has taken even me by surprise. It transpires that in reply to a parliamentary question regarding the amount of tuna farmed in Malta in recent years, George Pullicino informed the House that 1,347 tonnes (worth over €20 million) were carried over from 2007 to 2008. He gave a detailed breakdown of the provenance of this tuna, and explained that it had been caught by Libyan, Moroccan, Korean and Maltese fishing vessels.
But lo and behold: in another detailed breakdown of the same 1,347 tonnes, Dr Gruppetta claimed that a substantial part of it had been fished by Italian and French vessels. Interestingly enough, no mention was made of any Korean vessels.
So rather than making childish insinuations about myself, Keith A. Galea might wish to explain the extraordinary discrepancy between the Minister’s declarations to Parliament, and the Fisheries Director’s declarations to the European Commission.
I am meanwhile informed that this very discrepancy has been raised in the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee by a Spanish MEP, who is quoted in another part of this paper as saying: “Either Gruppetta supplied false data to the Commission, or the Minister misled parliament.”
In serious countries, misleading parliament is considered a serious matter.

Meanwhile, the European Commissioner for Fisheries Joe Borg said on TVM on Tuesday that a preliminary examination of the Commission inspection reports “appear to have validated” Malta’s declarations. But which declarations was he referring to? The ones submitted by Dr Gruppetta to the Commission, which specify a carry-over of tuna caught by French and Italian vessels? Or the declarations made in Parliament by the Fisheries Minister, who denied that any Italian or French tuna was carried over to 2008 (but instead listed Korean tuna, omitted by the Fisheries Director)?
I sent this question, along with many others, to the European Commission this week. but curiously I have not received any reply.

Perhaps Keith A. Galea would be good enough to supply one instead. After all, that is partly why the Maltese taxpayer continues to foot his salary...


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