The testimonies of former Office of the Prime Minister official Neville Gafa and communications staff member Josef Caruana were highly anticipated in Monday’s public inquiry sitting following last week’s testimony about the men’s involvement in harassing Daphne Caruana Galizia by The Shift’s founder Caroline Muscat.
However, in an unexpected move, Caruana Galizia’s sister Corinne Vella and son Matthew presented dossiers and reports highlighting the online harassment of the murdered journalist by government officials. These reports supplement the extensive documentation presented by Muscat last week, on State-sponsored trolling of Caruana Galizia before, and after, she was murdered in October 2017.
This was the first sitting where Caruana Galizia’s parents were not present.
Matthew Caruana Galizia, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and software engineer, compiled a detailed report into how his mother was portrayed on Labour Party TV One and blogposts by Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield when he served as communications officer for the Prime Minister.
Bedingfield’s blog stopped a few months after the journalist was murdered.
Bedingfield’s blog was first registered in 2003. There were several periods where nothing was uploaded but it was revived in December 2015 after being dormant for three years. It was ultimately taken down in April of 2018.
“Just before the Panama Papers broke, activity increased massively, and then continued peaking after that… there was a lull after my mother’s murder, and then a few posts targeting the Daphne Project, and my brothers and I,” Matthew said.
When searching the archives, the term ‘Bidnija Bogan’ was used by Bedingfield 80 times, and ‘Bidnija’ 150 times. Bedingfield also used his blog to post rebuttals to his mother’s posts on Electrogas
The report also highlighted the dehumanisation of Caruana Galizia by Labour Party media, which built on evidence submitted to the public inquiry by The Shift’s founder and editor.
“A lot of this is extremely distressing material,” he said. The dossier included screenshots from a television feature on One TV called ‘Elfaba’ which was part of the ‘Tanatnejn’ programme.
In these segments, there was “a very unsubtle portrayal” of his mother as a deranged witch. “It is a man who is playing her, with a wig and prosthetic nose, surrounded by candles to make it look like an occult environment, and a bottle of Jack Daniels on the table,” he explained.
The segments included “recurring themes of general Labour propaganda” portraying his mother as an agent of the Nationalist Party, a witch, and in a “generally misogynistic manner” as “a woman at home with nothing better to do”.
The dossier handed in by Caruana Galizia’s sister included a series of screenshots of social media posts shared by Caruana and Gafa. “The information is about their personal communications with Caruana Galizia and her supporters or government critics, before and after her murder,” Vella said. Gafa used to share many pictures of Caruana Galizia of a “stalking” nature.
In last week’s sitting, Muscat spoke about the State-sponsored trolling of Caruana Galizia that she uncovered in a six-month investigation, which revealed the Labour Party’s secret online hate Facebook groups.
The harassment was not only limited to the secret groups but took place openly by government officials, including Caruana and Gafa. Caruana published a number of posts on his Facebook page labelling the news portal as “fake news” and demanding an apology.
The posts led to a number of comments saying that The Shift journalists wrote under fake names or were liars. A report of the incident was filed and resulted in a Council of Europe press freedom alert. It was classified as an act of ”intimidation, defamation, trolling/cyberbullying committed by government/State agency/public officials”.
During his testimony, Caruana was questioned about an editorial that he wrote in June 2017 while editor of Labour-leaning newspaper L-Orizzont, which is owned by the General Workers Union, where he named and called out journalists reporting on government corruption to be expelled from the country. “From my perspective, those journalists used to cause harm,” he said.
Caruana, who has been vociferous in speaking out against government critics, admitted to being part of secret online groups exposed by The Shift. When asked whether as an OPM official he felt comfortable writing such posts, Caruana said: “I’m not a public officer, I’m a person of trust.”
In a heated testimony with OPM Head of Communications, Matthew Carbone, described to the Board his experience of the events on 29 December, where journalists were locked in a room in Castille in the early hours following a press conference.
Lawyer Charlon Gouder, who represented Carbone and Caruana, argued that Carbone could not reply to questions about events that were under police investigation. Yet, the inquiry board overruled this objection.
Carbone defended the incident and said it was normal procedure in media management that journalists waited until the Prime Minister “is in his office and safe”. He said that he felt it was “his responsibility” to make sure the Cabinet members were safe “within an atmosphere where protesters were calling the prime minister an animal”.
“If there was someone who was locked inside it was the ministers,” he said, recalling an incident in December where protestors surrounded the car of Minister Owen Bonnici.
Carbone reluctantly agreed to give the names of the men who refused to let the journalists leave – some in the customer care department, a messenger at OPM, and some who formed part of the lighting or supplies team. He could not name all the men.