The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

Updated: Press freedom delegation concerned on lack of urgency in Caruana Galizia inquiry

Julian Bonnici Wednesday, 17 October 2018, 11:08 Last update: about 11 months ago

An international freedom of expression mission to Malta has expressed its serious concern in the shortcomings of the Maltese government, raising concerns over a lack of “urgency” in the investigation of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the state of press freedom conditions of the country, once again reiterating calls for a public inquiry into whether the murder could have been prevented and to see what preventive measure can be implemented, in its report following their visit.

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The delegation, composed of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute, and PEN International, also called on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to start guaranteeing “full regular access and interviews to the independent media", explaining that social media interviews with scripted answers were not enough

While appreciating the government’s open dialogue, the mission still found that Malta was not  “living up to its obligations to guarantee and safeguard freedom of expression as required by the European Convention on Human Rights in the investigation.”

“We are deeply concerned that an apparent lack of progress in the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia is having a chilling effect on public interest investigative reporting,” the mission said, noting that this has had an adverse effect on Malta’s international reputation.

On the murder investigation itself, the mission found that there has been no “urgency” and “ no indication from top government officials that additional progress has been made towards identifying those who ordered the assassination.”

There has also been no indication of when it is expected to conclude, something which the mission said was indicative of why a public inquiry must be called when faced with questions from The Malta Independent.

The group reiterated calls for a public inquiry and appeared dissatisfied with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s belief that any such inquiry would prejudice the current investigation.

No assurances given by PM that protest memorial will be protected

The removal of the protest material at the Great Siege Memorial in Valletta was also identified as a key issue, with the delegation expressing their concern that public officials continue to "denigrate the legacy" Caruana Galizia, adding that they received "no assurance from the Prime Minister" that the memorial would remain protected.

"While the Prime Minister said he would welcome the application for a permanent memorial, this is a separate and distinct issue," the delegation said.

The PM also did "not fully commit" to the calls for the resignation of V18 Chairman Jason Micallef.

Polarised and isolated journalistic climate an issue

A polarised and isolated journalistic climate was also flagged as an issue, with the government’s preferential allocation of advertising subsidies to media outlets with links or supportive of the government also described as a serious concern.

“Nearly every journalist the delegation spoke to referred to divisions in the media community," the delegation said, adding that journalists said that systematic challenges, namely economic pressure, present difficult industry's condition.

Restrictions to information also concerned the delegation.

The mission also expressed disappointment with the reluctance to continue to pursue libel suits against Caruana Galizia, while also noting that in the five hearings the delegation was set to monitor, persons who were scheduled to appear failed to turn up, including the PM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.

The delegation did note that the decriminalization of defamation was a positive step.

Recommendations

The delegations recommendations to the Maltese authorities beyond the called for a public inquiry and a full and comprehensive investigation included; the protection of the protest memorial, to transfer the burden of proof to defendant to claimant in defamation cases of public interest, prevent the transfer of libel cases to heirs, subject public officials to a higher standard of scrutiny, and ensure greater freedom of information.

 

Government reaction

Reacting, the government said it joined the institutions in stressing the need that justice is served in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“The Government reiterates its full support towards local and international investigators who are conducting a thorough and serious investigation - so much so, that in less than 50 days three Maltese citizens were arraigned to Court accused of murdering Ms Caruana Galizia.

The Government also agrees with the five international organisations that the free press is crucial and a sine qua non in a democracy and the Government is fully committed to keep strengthening freedom of expression in Malta.”

This was evidenced with the recent promulgation of the new Media and Defamation Act which is one of the most progressive legislations in Europe and outside the continent as it did not only strike off criminal libel in whatever form from our law books, but also implemented a wide array of reforms which increased journalistic freedoms, the government said.

“In the past six years, during the first and its current second legislature, the Government has embarked on a wide range of reforms which strengthened the rule of law and bolstered democracy with the introduction of new legislation which brought Malta at par with European best practices in many areas of Governance.

Therefore, it looks forward to implement further reforms as might be suggested by the Venice Commission from whom the Government itself has requested a legal review.

 

The Government remains committed to engage with all bona fide international institutions and foster a deep dialogue, ultimately for the benefit of democracy, civil freedoms and the rule of law.”

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