The inquiry board investigating the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia expressed anger and offence at accusations by the lawyers of government officials who repeatedly stalled questions, saying they were “political”.
Lawyer Pawlu Lia, who has been accompanying most government officials testifying before the inquiry, repeatedly labelled questions asked by Caruana Galizia family lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia and Jason Azzopardi as “political” during the testimony by Jonathan Cardona, Head of the Citizenship Scheme.
The same labelling was done last week during testimonies by disgraced former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and former Minister Konrad Mizzi.
On Monday, the accusation seemed to be the final straw for Judge Emeritus Michael Mallia, who is heading the board. He promptly snapped back at the lawyer in frustration: “Stop this thing about political questions!”
Judge Abigail Lofaro added: “We are not here to do something political, this criticism is offensive!”
“That is the perception out there,” Lia said. The Labour Party’s officials have been busy on various media channels propagating the line that the inquiry is political and should come to an end.
Amid accusations that a political narrative is being driven within the inquiry, on Monday Prime Minister Robert Abela told journalists that the inquiry should end next week. Abela’s statement was met with accusations of political interference by members of the Opposition.
Opposition Leader Bernard Grech commented on social media, saying “people want justice, prime minister. And you’re in the way”.
The people want justice, Prime Minister. And you're in the way. pic.twitter.com/kzLDDhuc9B
— Bernard Grech (@bernardgrechmt) December 7, 2020
Cardona’s testimony not in line with Muscat’s
Citizenship Scheme Head Jonathan Cardona on Monday insisted with the board that the government had attempted to dissuade Henley & Partners’ Christian Kalin from taking financially-crippling legal action against Caruana Galizia.
The board questioned Cardona about a chain of emails between Kalin, former Chief of Staff Keith Schembri, former Justice Minister Owen Bonnici and Muscat, in which Cardona was included, where Kalin had asked for their blessing to go ahead with legal action in the UK against media in Malta.
The emails had been published by Caruana Galizia.
Yet Cardona denied this and insisted that Bonnici had encouraged Kalin to send a letter rather than take court action. “I felt there was a de-escalation by Bonnici,” he said.
In his testimony, Bonnici had also told the board that he had encouraged Kalin to use dialogue instead of legal action. But “if he wants to use that route, who am I to tell him not to?” Bonnici had told the board of inquiry.
When Muscat testified last Friday, he admitted to “not objecting” in order to “protect the interests of the country”.
On press freedom
An explanation on realities faced by journalists in Malta by Times of Malta editor Herman Grech, also expressed in the inquiry on Monday, contradicted the depiction of the same industry by Muscat only three days earlier.
On Friday, Muscat told the board that Maltese journalists have “strong tools at their disposal”, citing the Freedom of Information Act. Yet Grech described the same tool as being very lengthy in nature, sometimes “so long so that you forget the story”.
As an example, he said that attempts to gather information on the members of the Vitals Adjudication Committee had taken about two years, through a freedom of information request, and this was only following a court case.
While Muscat played down the extent of hostility towards journalists, Grech spoke of a climate of “daily public manipulation” when officials disagree with what is written.
When Judge Emeritus Said Pullicino asked Grech whether access to information needed to be strengthened, Grech said the media was working in a state “where the government acts like it does not exist”. Such behaviour includes the ignoring of requests for interviews, which leads to a decrease in public trust.
Questioned about the funds the media received from the government, Grech referred to the wage supplement saying it was paid according to the number of employees.
Freedom of Information requests submitted by The Shift on the distribution of COVID-19 funds, whether as wage supplements or advertising, were rejected by Malta Enterprise.