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Disinformation Watch #21: On a public inquiry into a journalist’s death

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Photo: Council of Europe.

On 9 August, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family called for a public inquiry into whether her death could have been prevented and to establish any measures necessary to protect the lives of journalists and anti-corruption campaigners in Malta. The government has a legal obligation to set up a public inquiry under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees the right to life.

Interim Reply: hostile mockery of public inquiry and Caruana Galizia

The government, through the Attorney General (AG) Peter Grech, published an ‘interim’ reply on 31 August right before office closing time, reserving the right to make further replies, 22 days later. The AG reply said it was an ‘interim’ one because they couldn’t provide “swift feedback during August”.

What did the rest of it say?

That the legal opinion provided by the family’s legal team “contains a number of unsubstantiated claims, baseless innuendo, and incorrect information”. Yet, the reply did not provide even a single example of this.

The reply also states that the “magistrate leading the inquiry into the murder of Ms Caruana Galizia has unfettered discretion and freedom”. The first magistrate leading the inquiry, Anthony Vella, was made a judge on the Justice Minister’s recommendation in June.

Reporters Without Borders’ secretary general Christophe Deloire said: “The promotion of Vella, a magistrate who was determined to pursue this inquiry until the end, comes at the worst possible time for the case and threatens to delay the investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder even more”.

“Our judiciary is independent and impartial,” according to the AG’s reply. Yet, the latest European Commission Justice Scoreboard found that when it came to the “perceived independence of courts and judges among the general public”, Malta placed behind all EU states except Poland, currently in the midst of a judicial crisis, Spain, Slovenia, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary, also in the midst of a judicial crisis.

The public believed the lack of independence was due to “interference or pressure from government and politicians,” according to the scoreboard. On Friday, we learnt from the Labour Party media that a new committee to oversee magistrates and judges was set up and stuffed full of Labour Party cronies.

The AG said in his reply: “I would not expect [the Malta Police Force and Malta Security Services] to provide a running commentary in the public domain”. The dog-whistle reference to ‘running commentary’, the name of Caruana Galizia’s blog, said a lot about the government’s true feelings about the deceased, her family, and the human rights of its citizens. Instead of tackling the matter with the seriousness it deserves, the government laid into the family of a murder victim and the murder victim herself.

The reply also stated: “we must express our disappointment that you consider the government to be ‘hostile’ to Ms Caruana Galizia’s family”. The AG must have missed evidence of the government’s violent hostility to the Caruana Galizia family, going from a dehumanisation campaign, to pursuing libel cases against Caruana Galizia’s estate (her family), to slandering them and spreading conspiracy theories that they had a hand in Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

Joseph Muscat to the BBC: government sees no need for a public inquiry

Caught unawares by a BBC crew in Brussels, Muscat was asked for his position on the call for a public inquiry. His comments were broadcast on the BBC4 Today Programme, the most widely followed in the UK, on 22 September. What did he say?

“I would also think that investigators need to be given the space to investigate and I’m not too sure that a second public inquiry – whatever that means – can lead to a better result or not,” Muscat said.

First, there is no public inquiry, so Muscat is lying when he refers to a “second” public inquiry (unless he can’t tell the difference).

Second, “whatever that means” – the legal opinion provided on 9 August, written by senior human rights, civil liberties, and media freedom lawyers, spells out in precise detail why an inquiry is needed and how it should be set up to be compliant with Article 2 of the ECHR.

Third, the public inquiry is into the question as to whether Caruana Galizia’s death could have been prevented. It is a necesary scrutiny of the State. It does not double up on, and would not overlap or interfere with, the criminal investigation. Establishing a public inquiry is designed to broaden the investigation, and to widen the space available for all investigative work – this is in the public interest.

Muscat also suggested that some kind of “parliamentary inquiry” may be possible once the murder investigation is complete. A parliamentary inquiry is the antithesis of independence and impartiality and can serve no purpose other than to provide a political whitewash of Malta’s government and State.

Attorney General reply 5 October: government actively considering public inquiry

Apparently waiting for the Court of Appeal to deliver judgment on the AG’s appeal against the Constitutional Court’s ruling that Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio Valletta should be taken off Caruana Galizia’s murder investigation (confirmed on Friday), the AG provided a longer reply to 9 August call for a public inquiry. What does it say?

First, it provides no answers, but a long series of questions that indicate the government is actively considering a public inquiry while also delaying its progress.

Second, the letter is written in a completely different tone. It cites an English legal textbook, Beer on Public Inquiries, suggesting that the government’s legal hand, London City firm Bird&Bird, which wrote the government’s reply to the first MEP Rule of Law report, may have had a hand in this letter.

It bears no resemblance to the Justice Minister’s writing, as the interim reply does, or to the writing from the AG’S office.

Third, the letter fails to make its own the 31 August interim reply’s claim that the legal opinion provided by the family’s legal team is deceitful, incorrect, and full of innuendo.

And although the letter indicates the government is actively considering a public inquiry, it places the onus for justification for a public inquiry on the victim’s family. The AG knows full well that the establishment of a public inquiry is a legal obligation, not a gift or a punishment, provided for under Article 2 of the ECHR.

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Call for protection for murdered Bulgarian journalist’s colleagues