The Malta Independent 10 April 2020, Friday

Daphne public inquiry - We were called 'animals', OPM communications chief says

Albert Galea Monday, 17 February 2020, 13:50 Last update: about 3 months ago

The chief communications officer of the Office of the Prime Minister today gave an account of what had taken place on the night when then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had called a press conference to say why Yorgen Fenech, today accused with complicity in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, had not been given immunity.

Matthew Carbone, testifying in the public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, said that there were no orders to lock journalists inside a room. It is normal practice that the Prime Minister leaves the room before the journalists are allowed out a few minutes later.

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But, on this occasion, there had been protests and "we were called animals," he said.

Carbone was later also asked to identify people in photographs taken on that particular night. He at first refused, citing the fact that there is a police investigation, but later identified a few people who are seen together with journalists in the room.

Judge Michael Mallia is leading the inquiry, with the other two members of the board being chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Madam Justice Abigail Lofaro.

OPM official and former Orrizont editor Josef Caruana, and former government communications coordinator Matthew Carbone are expected to testify today together with former OPM employee Neville Gafa.

The inquiry was set up to determine whether any wrongful action or omission by, or within, any State entity facilitated the assassination or failed to prevent it and to establishing whether the State had and has in place effective criminal law provisions and other practical means to avoid the development of a de facto state of impunity through the frequent occurrence of unresolved criminal acts.

Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia are representing the Caruana Galizia family.

Follow minute by minute updates below. Please refresh for latest updates

5.36pm: That is the final act of today's marathon sitting. Neville Gafa and Nigel Vella will testify next Wednesday.

5.33pm: An animated discussion ensues again, with the board also questioning the relevance of the question and with Azzopardi trying to justify the question in line with the terms of reference of the inquiry. Gouder points out that Azzopardi should make the question more specific, but Azzopardi points out that it is clear that "the witness is not ready to answer a simple question". The board doesn't buy it, and tells the witness to disregard the question.

5.31pm: Azzopardi now asks whether Caruana communicated with then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat or his staff through a private email address about goverment work, perhaps tied to the domain "josephmuscat.com". Charlon Gouder, who until now has been silently scrolling through his mobile phone and following proceedings, intervenes and asks about the relevance of the question - to which Azzopardi, now agitated, fires back "because that's what people who have something to hide does!"

5.30pm: Jason Azzopardi asks how two days before the general election, he is seen on Xtra reading from an FIAU report on Pilatus Bank. Azzopardi asks how he had acquired the report. "My sources", Caruana replies noting that this was when he was still a journalist.

5.28pm: He mentions Tonio Borg specifically, noting that Ivan Camilleri was used as a tool by the PN's government to spin stories in favour of the government.

5.25pm: He is now asked about his remarks against specific journalists such as Jacob Borg and Ivan Camilleri, to which he replies that they would be fed twisted stories to attack Malta.

5.24pm: He replies that whenever he had posted anything, given his background, he had kept in mind the principles of the press law and had been careful on what to write. On the occasion referred to earlier, when Caruana said he had apologised, he said that the Prime Minister had taken him aside and told him that such comments were not befitting of someone who worked in his office - which is why he had ultimately apologised.

5.23pm: Commodini Cachia is now leafing through the dossier that Vella presented. She starts by asking whether he was comfortable as a public officer - but is interrupted by Caruana. "I am not a public officer - a person of trust is not a public officer", he states. "Who appointed you?", Comodini Cachia asks. "The Prime Minister", he replies. "And who pays you?", she follows up. "The government", he replies. "So during that job being paid for by the government, can you tell us whether you were comfortable or uncomfortable in posting these things or whether one of your superiors told you that it would be better not to comment in such a manner," Comodini Cachia asks.

5.18pm: Madam Justice Lofaro asks again about whether he had shared something about the fuel smuggling narrative. "I might have shared it, yes", Caruana replies. He is asked whether he knows Neville Gafa, which he replies in the affirmative as they both worked in Castille. Asked what Gafa's role was, Caruana replies "I don't know exactly what his role was". He also testifies that he had never seen Yorgen Fenech at Castille.

5.14pm: "What do you know about the Truth project?", Madam Justice Lofaro asks. "Nothing," he replies, before noting that, however, he does know of its existence. "There was another one like it called Taste Your Own Medicine," he states, explaining that it was a sort of counter to other blogs.

5.13pm: Madam Justice Lofaro asked whether he is in a Facebook group called 'Laburisti Maghqudin', to which Caruana replies in the affirmative, saying that he used to share things in the group on occasion - especially during the MEP elections when he was promoting his candidature.

5.10pm: Judge Mallia now turns to the theory that Caruana Galizia's murder involved fuel smuggling. He asks whether he had heard of this theory. Caruana replies that it had been Saviour Balzan who had first reported it, but notes that he did not know of the theory before it emerged in the media. Madam Justice Lofaro asks how the fuel smuggling case and the assassination were linked. "I don't know - Saviour Balzan I suppose has his own sources," Caruana replies.

5.08pm: Said Pullicino has now shifted questions to the security arrangements at Castille - perhaps in an attempt to corroborate Matthew Carbone's earlier testimony. Caruana does in fact corroborate what Carbone said, noting that the building's security is handled by the army and that the Prime Minister has his own security detail.

5.06pm: Judge Said Pullicino reads out another remark which seems to imply that the family was involved in the murder. Caruana confirms that these are his words. "As an analyst, I have to analyse the news", Caruana states. Said Pullicino asks how he had reached such a conclusion. "It's not a conclusion," Caruana points out before adding that he was observing some things which were "strange but true". He notes that he had apologised for the remark, but Peter Caruana Galizia across the courtroom shakes his hand and says "not to me". Comodini Cachia points out that Caruana had only apologised to Joseph Muscat, not the family.

5.04pm: Madam Justice Lofaro reads out another tweet - "We all get what we deserve, but only the successful will admit it" - and asks whether he tweeted it. Caruana again says that he does not remember tweeting it.

5pm: He is asked whether he has ever heard of the blog "Veru Biss" - to which he replies that he has no clue what it is. The board states that he had tweeted an article from this blog, but again Caruana states that he does not recall. The offending tweet is in the dossier that Corinne Vella presented earlier. Caruana is confronted by the screenshot - he states that this cannot be his post, as he never wrote in English (the caption to the post is in English). Caruana now says that he may have retweeted an article from the blog, but does not remember.

4.59pm: Judge Mallia reads out an extract which names several journalists such as Jacob Borg, Mario Frendo, and Daphne Caruana Galizia, who, he said, "should disappear from journalism". Caruana has no problem in confirming that the writing is his, almost recalling it from memory.

4.58pm: He is asked whether he had ever written about Daphne Caruana Galizia, to which he replies that there were many occasions. He is confronted with his harsh words towards Daphne Caruana Galizia. "I always followed the parameters of press law, was always caution - as far as i know, no journalist ever did any complaint or libel against me," he replies.

4.57pm: Asked what his work is, Caruana replies that he works with the Office of the Prime Minister coordinating replies to the parliamentary questions, and that he had previously work at Union Print as editor of L-Orizzont and the deputy editor of it-Torca.

4.54pm: Josef Caruana now enters the courtroom and takes the witness stand.

4.53pm: Gafa states that he has no problem with this, and departs. 

4.52pm: But he doesn't take the stand - the board advises him that he should come to court on Wednesday to give his testimony.

4.51pm: Neville Gafa now enters the courtroom.

4.50pm: Matthew Caruana Galizia has stepped off the stand.

4.45pm: The archive that Matthew Caruana Galizia has provided is not comprehensive and that there are gaps. This may be because Bedingfield could have deleted some posts. One such post is one which Bedingfield made "announcing" Daphne Caruana Galizia's death. "It is very disturbing material," Caruana Galizia says as he hands over the dossier.

4.44pm: Caruana Galizia states that certain posts include pictures of his mother going about her everyday life, and even a picture showing his mother getting into a car, which was being followed by the hitmen, with the location and number plate being in clear view. He explains that the terms "Bidnija Bogan" as mentioned some 80 times, and "Bidnija" by itself was mentioned at least 150 times.

4.34pm: The report covers the period when Bedingfield's blog was most active, between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2018. It also covers Bedingfield's membership of secret hate groups, and Bedingfield's appearances in a TV show called Taghna T-Tnejn with Luke Dalli (Helena Dalli's son). The show, Caruana Galizia explains, had a recurring feature called 'El Fava' which portrayed his mother as a "deranged witch" and which had skits which saw her mother be portrayed by a man with a prosthetic nose drinking Jack Daniels. There are recurring themes of government propaganda in the skit, Caruana Galizia states.

4.29pm: Matthew Caruana Galizia is on the stand now. He is presenting a dossier about Glenn Bedingfield's blog. He is presenting a number of CDs with the contents of Bedingfield's blog, which has since been removed but which he has managed to recover.

4.22pm: The board has now withdrawn for a five-minute break.

4.21pm: "This is someone connected to the criminal world, talking photos of a woman the day before her murder," Vella says before also mentioning other "stalking" photos of Caruana Galizia in her everyday life which Gafa had posted on his wall.

4.16pm: Vella points out that Gafa frequently used the hashtag "GaliziaBarra" with Robert Musumeci, seemingly indicating that it would be a general election which "throws Daphne out". She also notes that Gafa had uploaded photos of Daphne in her everyday life, including photos which she said were taken the day before she was killed.

4.14pm: The dossier on Gafa meanwhile also centres on Facebook and Twitter. Vella is at a loss at how to describe the content of the document - "more research will not find that this information is incorrect; it will find more information," she says.

4.10pm: With regards to Caruana, she states that she has collected public statements from his Facebook and Twitter accounts about Caruana Galizia, and categorised them. The document is some 50 pages long. Vella states that Caruana had penned editorials calling for the elimination of journalists, accused Caruana Galizia's family of being part of her murder and taking part in an international distraction campaign through the world media, and also attacked various people such as the Archbishop, a Romanian MEP, and other activists. "There is a lot of material and it seems to tie in with an orchestrated campaign to dehumanise and discredit her", Vella says.

4.08pm: Corinne Vella, one of Daphne's sisters, has now taken the stand. She is presenting two dossiers to support the inquiry regarding the two upcoming witnesses - Josef Caruana and Neville Gafa. "The data is all first-hand and from open sources," she states. She continues that the dossier centres on the duo's statements on Caruana Galizia and her supporters.

4.06pm: That concludes Carbone's testimony.

4.05pm: Azzopardi asks whether there had any been any interview requests with the Prime Minister which had been accepted on the condition that the murder of Caruana Galizia was not to be discussed. "No, absolutely not," he replies.

4.01pm: Gouder tries to object to the question. Azzopardi asks whether the board can acquire any notes about this meeting. Carbone seems to have chuckled at this (we are seated behind him), which has drawn an irate Azzopardi into asking him whether he thinks the matter is funny - to which the board immediately shuts him down. Carbone states that there is an official statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister.

3.58pm: Azzopardi follows up and asks whether those notes are kept - to which Carbone replies that he generally does not keep his notes. Azzopardi gets to the crux of his question: a meeting in Baku where Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, and Kurt Farrugia had gone without the knowledge of the local media.

3.57pm: Jason Azzopardi asks whether Carbone knows protocol in terms of minute-taking for meetings which the Prime Minister partakes in while abroad, and whether he knows what is being said. Azzopardi states that the question will build into another which centres around a particular meetings which happened abroad. Carbone replies that he does not take minutes of such meetings, only notes for media statements.

3.55pm: Therese Comodini Cachia presents a picture taken from Manuel Delia's blog which shows Carbone at an Occupy Justice vigil. Carbone states he had left work at around the time that the vigil was ongoing, had seen journalists there, and stopped to take a picture. "I was called a terrorist for doing that," he remarks.

3.53pm: That seems to have been the final question on that specific incident - finally - with the board moving on to other questions. The board asks when the last time Carbone had spoken to Keith Schembri had been, to which Carbone replies that he had last spoken to Schembri last November and that before that he would not speak to him regularly.

3.51pm: Back to answering questions - Carbone states that he had given no order to lock journalists into the Ambassador's Hall that night.

3.50pm: He continues to leaf through the pictures, quietly matching faces to names. The courtroom has descended into a calm silence now - a far cry from the atmosphere just a few minutes ago. Carbone identifies Brian Hansford and Paul Caruana Galizia from the pictures - both journalists. The process is completed. Judge Mallia and Madam Justice Lofaro simultaneously remark, "that's all we wanted".

3.48pm: Carbone identifies another person - an electrician or lights supplier - as Nigel Vella (not to be confused with the Nigel Vella who works inside OPM's communications office) along with another person by his first name - a certain Lionel - who Carbone says was a supplier of some sort.

3.45pm: The media doesn't have copies of the pictures so it is a bit difficult to ascertain to who he is referring to. Both Jason Azzopardi and Therese Comodini Cachia are also peeking over Carbone's shoulder to see who he is recognising and who he isn't.

3.44pm: Carbone identifies Ronnie Vella from the communications branch and Nikhail Spiteri from customer care. He continues to identify a certain Jason Bonnici. He is leafing through the pictures with the help of a court official who is marking the person's identities on each picture. There are certain images where Carbone can be heard saying that he does not recognise the people in them.

3.41pm: In another picture he identifies Ruben Sciberras, who works with a particular minister. Carbone continues to look at the picture, noting that there are a couple of people whose faces he recognises, but whose names he does not know. Jason Azzopardi asks whether he can identify Mark Gauci, a canvasser for Aaron Farrugia, to which Charlon Gouder loudly objects again.

3.40pm: Madam Justice Lofaro has seemingly finally gotten through to Carbone, and he begins identifying people in the pictures. He points out one person as a certain Joseph Scerri who works in the Prime Minister's Customer Care sector, although he states that he stands to be corrected on the name.

3.39pm: Carbone is still being remarkably evasive, but manages to identify Nigel Vella in one of the pictures - Vella is one of his colleagues at the government's communications office.

3.38pm: As the lawyers argue things out, the board threatens to exclude all of them from the room and continue with just the witness on the stand.

3.37pm: Carbone has now been given a stack of pictures, but doesn't seem to know what to do with them or who to identify. Jason Azzopardi states that he can start by identifying Mark Gauci and Ronnie Vella - somewhere down the line Azzopardi also mentions the word "mazzun" which draws further angry remarks from Gouder across the table.

3.35pm: Things are reaching a boiling point, with the whole board effectively shouting at Carbone for outrightly refusing to answer their questions. They state that he is free to tell them that he does not want to answer, but Madam Justice Lofaro can be heard saying that there will be consequences if that is the case. Judge Said Pullicino again attempts to pose the question, to which Carbone replies again citing the ongoing investigations. "Answer our questions! Then do what you want with the police!", Judge Mallia loudly interjects, now furious at the witness. Jason Azzopardi points out that Carbone is acting like he is above the law. Carbone says that it is difficult to keep track of who is there in a room with 80 to 100 people, to which Jason Azzopardi now stands and loudly laments: "He is insulting our intelligence!" - a remark which earns his own warning from the board.

3.30pm: Gouder against points out that there are police investigations ongoing. The board asks whether the witness has spoken to the police about the case, to which Carbone replies that he has not. Comodini Cachia suggests that the police should perhaps arrest Carbone and interrogate him then - an idea which draws a loud objection from Carbone's lawyer.

3.28pm: Carbone points out that one of the persons named in a previous testimony was a certain Ronnie Vella who, he says, was at the time employed as a communications official. He is now asked to identify Vella in the pictures from the night, but he refuses - once again prompting further arguments.

3.26pm: The board brings Carbone back to the question - whether he recognises anyone who had stood by the doors in Castille, and whether he knew who they were. Carbone again repeats that he does not want to say anything about issues which are under the investigation of the police. Judge Mallia is clearly getting irritated at Carbone: "So the people who were standing there with their arms crossed, grinning sarcastically - you don't know who they are?", he asks Carbone.

3.23pm: Carbone says that if there is someone who was locked in somewhere it was someone like Owen Bonnici who spent an hour locked in his car by protestors punching and spitting on his car. "But they're not allowed to be traumatised", Carbone says ironically.

3.21pm: Carbone now explained what happened on that day, saying that he had gone downstairs at 3am to call journalists in, when demonstrators "assaulted" Castille's doors to try and get in. In the fracas he explains that he felt that the press conference should be called off, but that the Prime Minister had insisted that it took place. He said that it is perfectly normal practice for the Prime Minister to leave the room before the journalists do. He said that the journalists were held inside for two minutes and 40 seconds until the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had left the room. "We were called animals and other things by certain people there", he explains and notes that he felt that it was his responsibility and that had he not taken action "today we would be talking about an assault on the Prime Minister or worse".

3.18pm: Tempers are rising, as defence lawyer Gouder criticises the line of questioning with regards to this incident, noting that this does not fit into the terms of reference of the inquiry. Judge Mallia is not at all convinced by Gouder's arguments and insists that Carbone answers about who the people who locked journalists inside Castille were. As the arguing continues, Carbone blurts out "on that day, they came in for us at Castille" (Dakinhar dahlu ghalina Kastilja).

3.12pm: Judge Said Pullicino comes to ask about the night when journalists were locked into Castille's press conference room. "I cannot answer about things in which there are police investigations ongoing", Carbone replies before adding that he does not know how this matter ties into the investigation into Caruana Galizia's murder - to which the board replies that they will decide what is relevant and what is not. "The journalists were in no way locked in," Carbone says but before saying anything further his lawyer argues with the board for asking questions about ongoing police investigations.

3.08pm: Carbone is asked about the security arrangements in Castille. Gouder objected to the line of questioning, noting that the board should call in someone directly responsible for it as his client is only responsible for communications. Carbona replies that all he knows is that the Armed Forces of Malta are the entity who handle the security within the building, and that the Prime Minister has his own security staff.

3.05pm: He is asked whether he had ever been in any meetings with regards to the Panama Papers. He replies that he was never really in any discussions about it beyond speaking about issuing public statements. He says that at the time he had a superior - Kurt Farrugia - who would handle these things. He explains that he would be involved in matters only when it came to issuing a public statement.

3.02pm: Carbone is asked whether he was ever in discussions about FIAU reports or anything similar, to which he replies: "No, I was only involved in matters when we issued public statements".

3pm: Carbone says that he had never been present for discussions related to Yorgen Fenech, who is accused or complicity in the murder, or 17 Black, a Dubai-based company owned by Fenech (which he has never confirmed to be his). He is also asked whether he had ever seen Fenech at Castille. "I personally never saw him", Carbone says before adding that he does not know him and has never spoken to him. The latter question comes after the board had heard in previous testimonies that Fenech was a frequent visitor to Castille.

2.57pm: A discussion is now ongoing about the requirement or lack thereof of a press card or DOI-issued access card. Carbone said that he does not recall ever excluding a journalist from any event for not having a DOI-issued access card. He said that as far as he knew, there were no instances were any journalists from The Shift had been excluded from government events, as claimed in a previous testimony last week.

2.55pm: Carbone (above) is asked whether a call is issued to all media houses for press conferences, to which he replies that a call is issued to all media houses. He notes that a recent case where one media house had complained that they had been excluded from such a call was down to the fact that the event was not a press conference, but was in a period when journalists were continually waiting for a comment from the then Prime Minister as he went to work.

2.52pm: Carbone is asked what the procedure is with regards to Freedom of Information requests. He replies that there is a dedicated unit which handles these requests, but that he did not know who takes the final decision on such matters. He is asked whether the decisions on whether FOIs are answered are taken by Cabinet, to which Carbone replies that they are not. That unit would be in contact with the government communications branch which would sometimes seek legal advice from the Attorney General's office, he said.

2.48pm: Judge Mallia asks whether Carbone had heard of "The Truth Project". Carbone replies that he had heard of it but knows nothing about it. He asks whether this was similar to the Daphne Project - a media consortium set up to continue investigating Caruana Galizia's stories, to which Madam Justice Lofaro replies that they are in no way related. The Truth Project is something exposed by journalist Caroline Muscat in an earlier testimony, and is the term given to what she called a coordinated disinformation and dehumanisation campaign against Caruana Galizia and other government critics.

2.47pm: He said that he had communicated with foreign journalists but to set up informal chats. The journalists were more interested on general matters such as rule of law and protests, he explains.

2.46pm: Judge Mallia asks whether he had ever been involved in discussions about statements issued about Caruana Galizia, he said that he had not. He said that as a deputy he simply reported to Kurt Farrugia, and when he took the role of head of government communications in August he would communicate directly with the Prime Minister.

2.44pm: Judge Mallia says that it had been reported that Caruana Galizia's assassination had something to do with fuel smuggling - something which family members of Caruana Galizia had said was never true - and whether he had something to do with the emergence of this information. Carbone however starts with a statement, saying that the facts which he had been asked to testify about were in the public domain. "Absolutely not", Carbone replies when asked again whether he had any role in the emergence of the fuel smuggling narrative. He says that no journalist had ever contacted him about it either.

2.42pm: Carbone states that he is today working as the head of government communications. He has held this role since last August, having served as the deputy head of government communications since 2013.

2.40pm: Matthew Carbone will be the first to testify. He will be assisted by Charlon Gouder, as will Josef Caruana. Carbone takes the stand.

2.39pm: Therese Comodini Cachia states that they have prepared a dossier about Josef Caruana which contains a write-up relevant to screenshots from Facebook and Twitter, and from Orrizzont editorials which are related to Caruana Galizia.

2.35pm: Judges have walked into the courtroom. State Advocate Victoria Buttigieg is also here today.

2.29pm: There seems to be some delay. 

2.10pm: The courtroom has been opened. Sitting is about to start.

1.52pm: The sitting is expected to start at 2pm. Neville Gafa is present.

 

 

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