Journalists should not have been prevented from leaving a room in Castille after a press conference in November 2019 by then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the Standards Commissioner has ruled after his investigation.
The Office of the Prime Minister under Muscat has been found prima facie guilty of an ethics breach and it is now up to the parliamentary committee for Standards in Public Life to approve the Standards Commissioner’s report and take action.
The report – which was triggered by an Institute of Maltese Journalists (IĠM) complaint – has not yet been made public but Lovin Malta is informed that it has been passed on to Speaker Anġlu Farrugia who in turn shared it with the members of the committee which he chairs and is made up of equal members on both sides of the Chamber. When a report is sent to the Speaker, it means there has been a prima facie breach.
Asked if he received the report, Farrugia preferred not to be specific but said he receives reports from Standards Commissioner George Hyzler on a regular basis, “including recently”, and he will is seeking to convene the parliamentary committee some time next week.
The IĠM was also notified by the Standards Commissioner that the report had been concluded and was submitted to the Speaker’s office.
The committee members are PN MPs Karol Aquilina and Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Labour MPs Byron Camilleri and Edward Zammit Lewis.
Last July, Muscat was also found in breach of ethics for accepting expensive Petrus wine bottles from murder suspect Yorgen Fenech as a birthday present. In August, the parliamentary committee declared the case closed after endorsing the Commissioner’s conclusions but accepting that Muscat had assumed responsibility already and was no longer an MP.
The Castille lockup case had also been discussed in court. Last November, a court cleared three makeshift security guards who were charged by the police for holding four journalists against their will.
This incident had taken place a year earlier, at the peak of a political crisis, right after Muscat addressed a press conference at 3am to announce that Cabinet had rejected a second request for a presidential pardon from Yorgen Fenech, the main suspect in the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination. Her son Paul Caruana Galizia was one of the journalists who was prevented from leaving the room in which the press conference was held.
This turned out to be Muscat’s last press conference and he announced his resignation as Prime Minister a few days later.
However, magistrate Joe Mifsud had dismissed the police’s charges that the men held journalists against their will, ruling that he wasn’t “morally convinced that the prosecution met the required grade of proof”.
He was also critical of the manner in which the police conducted their investigation.
“The court is very displeased with how investigations took place. This case took place on 29th November 2019, a police report was filed on 2nd December and charges were pressed on 14th July 2020,” he said.
“Police had over eight months to investigate and gather all the necessary witness testimony and evidence to present a court case. No one should expect the court to fix the shortcomings of others. The court rules on cases that are brought in front of it, and not on what is said outside these halls, in a media report, a news portal or on social media.”
Mifsud said he couldn’t establish who gave the order for the doors to be locked but noted that footage showed an unidentified person eventually opening it from outside the room.
“It therefore seems as though the doors weren’t being controlled from within.”
He also ruled that the three men didn’t use any physical violence or stop the journalists from filming them, and criticised journalists for the way they reacted once the doors were opened.
“It seems like the situation descended into a free for all, which is unacceptable in any building, be it public or private. When someone enters a building as a guest or to conduct work, they’re not expected to take over the building.”
The three men were defended by lawyers Ramona Attard (also president of the Labour Party), Charlon Gouder and Matthew Xuereb.