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Foreign Minister commits to public inquiry within three months

International press freedom and human rights organisations raise Daphne Caruana Galizia case at global media conference in London.

Malta Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela addressing the Global Media Freedom Conference in London, July 2019.

The focus on the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London resulted in Foreign Minister Carmelo Abelo stating that Malta would be complying with the three-month deadline to launch an independent public inquiry set in the Council of Europe report.

Abela’s speech largely repeated what the Maltese government has been saying for the past two years. He said it was “unfortunate” that the journalist was murdered but pointed to legislative reforms “too extensive to detail”. He referred to changes to the media law and the Whistleblower Act, among others, as he felt the need to state that the Maltese government “respects the rule of law”.

There’s a pile up of of reports by international institutions that state the opposite, most recently from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The damning report by Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt on the investigation into the assassination of Caruana Galizia and the rule of law in Malta was adopted “with overwhelming majority” last month.

Abela’s speech stuck to the government line on the demand for an independent public inquiry. The government would need to see how this would not impinge on the ongoing investigation, Abela said.

Until he was pressed by Sarah Clarke, international organisation Article 19’s Head of Europe and Central Asia, that led Malta’s Foreign Minister to refer to the three-month deadline set in the PACE report.

“While we appreciate your statement, I wanted to draw attention to the decades of violence and harassment that Daphne Caruana Galizia experienced in the run up to her assassination, the ongoing intimidation of civil society and NGOs in the country, the daily destruction of the protest memorial calling for justice in her case, the harassment of her family, the ongoing libel threats and libel cases that they have inherited. And particularly on this point of the public inquiry, we are hearing again and again from the Maltese Government that this public inquiry cannot be immediately established – that is not correct,” Clarke said.

She stressed that the public inquiry can and must be established immediately for justice in this case. “So we would urge the Maltese Government to cease the destruction of the memorial calling for justice, to immediately establish a public inquiry and to work to protect civil society and journalists, including Caroline Muscat of The Shift News,” she added.

The Foreign Minister then went a step futher than, perhaps, he should have by implying the government will observe the three-month deadline.  Following the report’s adoption, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had said he would be seeking advice on the matter. There has been no indication of a different position adopted by the government until Abela’s reaction in London.

“Basically, in that Council of Europe report there is that within three months, we need to have a public inquiry,” Abela said.

OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, also referred to Caruana Galizia as well as Jan Kuciak ahead of Abela’s presentation.

International human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney spoke at the event where she made reference to Malta in her speech saying that “many people do not know that journalists have been murdered because they are journalists”, referring to the murders of Caruana Galizia’s and Kuciak.

A number of stakeholders from the world of human rights and media freedom took to the stage over the two-day event, imparting worrying statistics about the global decline in media freedom. 

Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Christophe Deloire told the audience that the “World Press Freedom Map is getting darker every year” with only 9% of the world’s population living in a country with a “good press freedom climate”.

He also referred to the case of Caruana Galizia and called for action in bringing justice to her and her family.

Rebecca Vincent, the UK Bureau Director of RSF, said, “It’s never been more dangerous than it is now to be a journalist…As we sit here, 340 journalists are imprisoned around the world.”

She told The Shift News she was disappointed that the British government did not prioritise Caruana Galizia’s case.

Anti-corruption NGO, Global Witness also referred to Caruana Galizia in an open letter to the British Foreign Secretary about the event. They praised her work in “working to uncover the tide of dirty money flowing around the world” adding that in her case “she paid the ultimate sacrifice” just for doing her job.

Hardis Kjerulf Thorgeirsdottir from the Venice Commission observed that during the Commission’s visit to Malta, they got “the strong impression that self-censorship was prevailing in the country” in terms of what the media would and would not cover. This is supported by findings from the RSF 2019 World Press Freedom Index .

The International Federation of Journalists, along with 32 other media freedom organisations, used the event to call on States to ensure the safety of media workers. They said “new pledges were not credible without action” and asked for the immediate release (of) all imprisoned journalists.

“Stop killing, attacking, and denigrating journalists, and investigate and prosecute all murders of journalists,” they said. They also put forward 11 recommendations that would ensure States’ compliance with their existing obligations and international standards.

The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced “five practical steps” that the government would take to defend media freedom.

These included the creation of an inter-governmental ‘Global Media Defence Fund’ that would be administered by UNESCO, an international task force to ensure governments deliver on their commitments to media freedom, and international lobbying efforts to fight back when media freedom comes under attack.

He also announced that Clooney had convened a panel of experts to advise countries on how to protect journalists, and he said that every country should sign a ‘global pledge’ on media freedom.

But the conference was not without controversy.

Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik were both denied access to the conference with the Foreign Office stating this was due to their “active role in spreading disinformation”. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Index on Censorship and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) condemnded the move, saying it was the kind of cherry-picking they opposed in authoritarian States.

The conference was also criticised for its failure to give attention to the case of Julian Assange. The founder of Wikileaks is currently being held in a British jail, pending extradition to the US where he is facing a life sentence under the US Espionage Act.

Assange, who according to the UN is displaying signs of torture, is being held for publishing leaked diplomatic cables that revealed that the US government was responsible for gross human rights violations.

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