Owen Bonnici, the Minister who shot down a Private Member’s Bill for the protection of journalists against SLAPP, told the public inquiry today that he had done “everything in his power” to stop legal action by Henley & Partners against Daphne Caruana Galizia.
He told the judges that he had felt no need to reply to Henley & Partners CEO Christian Kalin’s email when he was consulting with the Maltese government to sue Caruana Galizia.
The journalist had published emails between Kalin and top government officials in May 2017 in which the government gave the green light to proceed with a financially crippling lawsuit against her. Bonnici was among those included in the emails.
Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had replied: “I don’t object”.
His chief of staff had said: “Thanks, Chris. This looks good.”
In court today, the Minister said that Muscat was more involved in the cash for passport scheme than other projects.
Bonnici played down the suggestion that he should have replied to Kalin’s email.
“If he wants to use that route, who am I to tell him not to?” Bonnici said in reply to questions by the family’s lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia.
He argued that he had, in a separate meeting, encouraged Kalin to use dialogue instead of legal action.
“I did everything in my power to stop the SLAPP action,” he told the inquiry.
Bonnici was the same Minister who had opposed and shot down a Private Member’s Bill by the Opposition aimed at protecting journalists against SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation aimed at silencing journalists by suing them in foreign jurisdictions.
Bonnici was asked whether he was aware that Muscat had accepted Kalin’s proposal. The Minister admitted he was aware, but added that since it was Muscat who had replied then he should be the one questioned on that in court.
In a video conference, Henley and Partners had with the European Parliament’s delegation investigating the rule of law in Malta in 2018, representatives of the cash-for-passports concessionaire had said they only sue journalists in Malta if they got an ‘OK’ from the government.
Like other Cabinet members before him, the former justice minister washed his hands of decisions taken by the government on major controversial issues, such as having a minister and chief of staff open companies in Panama.
He referred to the fact that Konrad Mizzi was removed from Deputy Leader of the Labour Party but clammed up when asked about what actions were taken against Schembri, saying only that Muscat had to resign as a result of what had happened.
During the last hearing, Health Minister Chris Fearne said Muscat had made it clear that Schembri was a person of trust and that the decision on what to do with him was his responsibility.
Bonnici defended his statements calling murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia a hate blogger. “I don’t think my two or three tweets created an environment of hate speech,” the former Justice Minister said.
He was also questioned about his relationship with Brian Tonna of Nexia BT, the company that set up the offshore companies for Mizzi and Schembri, as well as Egrant.
Bonnici said Tonna was made consultant with his Ministry because he needed assistance with EU funds. A freedom of information request had revealed that Tonna was being paid approximately €5,000 a month as a person of trust at the justice ministry. He was kept on the job despite a magisterial inquiry looking into alleged kickbacks from the cash for passport scheme.
Confronted about the clearance of the protest memorial dedicated to Caruana Galizia, which was repeatedly cleared by orders of the same Minister, Bonnici said he did this to “avoid trouble”.