The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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The Daphne Public Inquiry: One year on, how much has changed?

Albert Galea Sunday, 24 July 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

A year has passed since the damning public inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was published.

The report, published on 29 July 2021, found that the State was guilty of creating and sustaining a culture of impunity which ultimately led to the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.  Amongst everything, the public inquiry made a number of recommendations which the government, upon publication of the report, committed to following.

Now, with a year gone since the report was published, The Malta Independent on Sunday goes back to see what those recommendations were, and what has been implemented and what hasn’t.

The first recommendation: Continuing to investigate the murder

The public inquiry recommendations were spread across 18 pages out of the 438-page report, and were largely split across two departments: amendments to the country’s legal framework in order to introduce new criminal offences, and ways and means to strengthen the country’s media sector.

Before delving into those two subjects however, the first recommendation put forward is for the police and all other regulatory authorities to continue their investigations to identify all of those who were in some manner involved in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

The board said in its document that as far as it understands, such investigations were ongoing at the time.

Updates from Malta’s police on ongoing investigations have always been notoriously scant, however perhaps the best indication that investigations are in fact still going and that new people may be under the microscope came last June.

In a court sitting, Police superintendent Keith Arnaud told a court that the police had, the month prior, obtained new information in the form of four DVDs which may connect others to the 2017 murder of the journalist and that they were investigating these leads.

Recommendations to strengthen Malta’s laws

From a legislative perspective, the public inquiry board made a number of recommendations for new crimes to be introduced into Malta’s legal framework.

One such proposed legal change was to introduce ‘Unexplained Wealth Orders’ to combat financial crime such as bribery and corruption, while another is for a specific crime to be introduced for when people in a public position interfere with the work of the police and other authorities.

The board also recommended the introduction of a law similar to one in Italy for association with a mafia organisation, the introduction of the crime of abuse of office by a public official, and the introduction of the crime of obstruction of justice, similar to what other countries have in their laws.

The board also wanted laws relating to the powers of the Attorney General’s office to be revised, so that they can ensure that the office can have full control of investigations on grave crimes and so that the same office can launch its own investigations if it wishes to. This, the board says, would be a full implementation of a Venice Commission recommendation.

Finally, the board also wanted to introduce laws which would outlaw hidden negotiations between members of the public administration and businesspeople on potential investments involving the government in some way. All communication between those two entities should be in an official capacity only, the board says, in order to avert any improper closeness between the government and businesses.

As far as the implementation of these measures goes, there hasn’t been much progress at all in the last year.

The closest the country got to seeing laws like these see the light of day was when the Nationalist Party proposed a set of legislative proposals which included many of these points, and tabled them in Parliament.

However, the government struck these proposals down, with Prime Minister Robert Abela arguing – amongst other things – that introducing a proposal to make association with a mafia organisation illegal was an acknowledgement that Malta is a “mafia state”.

Recommendations to strengthen the media sector

The board then made a number of recommendations on strengthening the media sector in Malta, with some of these being centred around the work of the police force, some around legislative changes, and some around constitutional changes.

In the police force, the board recommended a formal structure which regularly identifies which people – including, but not limited to journalists – may be exposed to serious attacks which may ultimately escalate into physical violence. This should be a specialised unit with specifically trained individuals within, similar to other units which exist in the Force to protect other categories of vulnerable people, and which will have a specific element which caters to journalists.

Furthermore, the board said that the police should value the work of journalists as contributors in the fight against abuse and criminality by investigating serious allegations which are made as a result of journalistic investigations.

Coming to the Constitution then, the board recommended strengthening of articles which regard freedom of expression so that free journalism is recognised as one of the pillars of a democratic society and that the State must guarantee it and protect it. The same amendments, the board recommended, should also state the right of the individual to receive information from the State and public administration, and that the State and public administration are obliged to provide such information.

The board also recommended the creation of a constitutional role of an Ombudsman or Commissioner for Ethics in Journalism, similar to the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, a role which is currently held by George Hyzler.  Such a position would be autonomous and impartial and have the function of implementing laws and regulations related to protecting media freedom and right to information.

Provisions related to public broadcasting should also be revised in order to ensure true impartial public broadcasting, the board recommended.

From a legislative perspective, the board recommended that the Freedom of Information Act should be revised to limit the cases where the public administration can refuse to provide information which is in the public interest.

The board also called on the government to address the problem of SLAPP suits, eliminate the possibility of frivolous libels against journalists by public officials, and stop libel cases after a journalist dies.

Organisationally, the board recommended that when public funds are being distributed in the form of advertising they are distributed in a manner which is just, equitable, and non-discriminatory.

Finally, the board recommended a law to regulate the journalism profession: it should reflect the important role of the media, and recognise the profession.  It should also ‘auto-regulate’ the profession like it does to other professions such as accountants, architects, pharmacists.

To do all of this, the board recommended the appointment of a committee of experts in the media composed of “academics, experts in media law, journalists, and media house owners” to carry out the exercise of examining the state of the media and of drafting these recommendations which will then be tabled in Parliament.  The committee, the board said, should be chaired by the President of Malta.

Implementing the measures

There has been the proposed implementation of a couple of these points, but the government has left this process in the hands of the committee of experts which they appointed as per the board’s recommendations.

The committee, which was appointed in January, is made up of journalists Matthew Xuereb (Times of Malta), Kurt Sansone (MaltaToday), Neil Camilleri (Malta Independent), academics Professor Carmen Sammut, and Professor Saviour Formosa, MediaToday owner Saviour Balzan and lawyer Kevin Dingli.

While it isn’t being chaired by the President of Malta, as per the board’s recommendation, it is being chaired by retired Judge Michael Mallia – the same person who chaired the three-person public inquiry board which made these recommendations in the first place.

The board has been tasked with completing its review of a set of legislative packages drafted by the government within a year, and The Malta Independent is informed that work to this end is ongoing and that it has presented the first report on part of the packages to the government already.

On the government’s part, it has announced legislative changes to protect journalists from SLAPP suits, but these are yet to be implemented, as they too must go through the aforementioned committee.

Final recommendation: An apology

The final recommendation put forward by the board was that the “State must formally recognise its shortcomings which ultimately created the environment for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder and reconciliate with the family.”

This is something which Prime Minister Robert Abela did on the same day that the public inquiry report was published.

“I was appointed prime minister after the public inquiry into the murder started. But I am now prime minister and it is now up to me to apologise for the state’s shortcomings,” Abela told a press conference hours after the inquiry's report was published.

The family accepted the apology and said that there had to be total accountability for every single failing identified, irrelevant of who committed it.

See Repubblika president's views here

 

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