The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

Former PM Muscat in breach of ethics, but Standards Czar highlights inability to take action

Wednesday, 3 March 2021, 11:12 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Standards Commissioner has found that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, prima facie, was in breach of ethics in the incident which saw journalists prevented from leave his office in Castille following a late night press conference.

But George Hyzler noted that there in uncertainty whether Muscat can still be found in breach of the code given that he is no longer a Prime Minister and no longer an MP.

This issue assumes greater importance in the light of a ruling by the Speaker on 11 January 2021 concerning the a pplicability of article 28 of the Act to persons who are no longer MPs. That ruling concerned Muscat's decision to give former Minister Konrad Mizzi the post of a consultant with the Malta Tourism Authority.

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In that case, Speaker Anglu Farrugia had ruled that no steps could be taken against Muscat.

In the Konrad Mizzi case, Parliament's Standing Committee for Standards in Public Life unanimously adopted the conclusions of my report to the effect that Dr Muscat had acted in breach of the code of ethics whilst Prime Minister, "notwithstanding the fact that he had resigned his seat in Parliament by the time I presented my report to the Committee. The Speaker's ruling concerned the issue of sanctioning a person who had resigned his seat by the time the matter fell to be decided by the Committee pursuant to article 28 of the Act. The ruling clearly does not affect my ability to investigate alleged breaches of ethics on the part of persons," Hyzler wrote.

Earlier this week Government MPs opposed the publication of the report.

Ministers Edward Zammit Lewis and Byron Camilleri voted against the report being published during a sitting of parliament's Standards Committee on Monday.

The Opposition members on the committee, Karol Aquilina and Therese Comodini Cachia, voted in favour of the report being published immediately but Speaker Anġlu Farrugia's casting vote swayed the government's way.

Hyzler's ruling was about an emergency Cabinet meeting called in November 2019 to discuss a request for pardon made by Yorgen Fenech, who had just been arrested as a person of interest in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder.

At the end of the meeting, Muscat addressed the press but journalists were briefly detained inside the conference room in Castile after it was over.

In their testimony, the journalists present for the event said that none of the individuals blocking the doors spoke to them or gave any reason for the detention of the journalists and crew; and none of the individuals manning the doors responded to the journalists' request to identify themselves.

In his reply, Muscat said that when staff from OPM Communications Office went to escort the journalists into the Auberge de Castille, a group of vociferous protestors who also happened to be outside the Office of the Prime Minister tried to force themselves into the building causing an evident security breach. The crowding of entrances to the Auberge de Castille on that night also prevented Government officials from leaving the building when the Cabinet meeting was over.

Muscat said in his explanation to Hyzler, while some of those who presented themselves as journalists walked out of the press conference hall, they chose to hurl obscene insults at the Prime Minister and members of Cabinet. This, in fact, proves that asking media to wait for two and half minutes, at most, was a correct decision to avoid an unwarranted situation from escalating.

The main contrast between the version of events provided by journalists and that provided by OPM officials and the former Prime Minister is possibly the length of time during which the doors of the Ambassadors' Hall were actually blocked, The video referred to by the OPM officials is circa two and a half minutes long, and one may assume that the recording of the incident only started when the journalists realised that they were not being allowed to exit the Ambassadors' Hall. It is therefore likely that the whole incident lasted longer than the two and a half minutes claimed by the officers of the OPM.

Hyzler noted that the persons physically blocking the exits were not security personnel but were later identified as being an assortment of identified OPM staff members, a minister's driver, and two other individuals not in any way connected to the OPM but who were acting as impromptu "security" officers and physically prevented attempts by some of the journalists to leave the hall.

In his conclusion, Hyzler said that whereas it is correct to state that journalists invited to attend a press conference are expected to comply with instructions given to them and to behave in a proper manner, one presupposes that instructions are properly given. In this case not only were instructions not properly given but none were given at all. OPM officials in their testimony rely on what is "normal practice" and do not state that anyone of them gave such instructions. The fact that exit points were blocked by unofficial security personnel who did not answer any questions at all increased the significance of this failure and provoked unnecessary fear and anxiety in some of those present.

"The recourse by members of Government to individuals who are known party loyalists whenever political unrest arises is, in my view, a relic of the distant past and which could have fuelled the political unrest at the time, even further," Hyzler cmmented.

"Therefore, in my view, this incident represents a prima facie breach on the part of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of articles 4.9 and 5.8 of the Code of Ethics for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries"

 

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