Using party loyalists as unofficial security personnel to block journalists exiting a November 2019 press conference by then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was “at best incorrect and abusive”, sources said a report by Malta’s Standards Commissioner has found.
“This is a serious issue that calls into question the institutional integrity of the Maltese government and the separation that should exist between state and party.”
“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,” George Hyzler allegedly said in the report.
The report, which found the Office of the Prime Minister under Muscat prima facie guilty of an ethics breach, has been blocked for publication by Speaker Anglu Farrugia on the grounds that the police investigation into the issue superseded the report by the Commissioner.
However, sources said Hyzler made it clear that his investigation did not focus on the actions of the three individuals charged in court or whether the events amounted to illegal arrest, detention, or confinement.
Rather, his investigation was concerned with whether any effort was made to tell journalists why they were being held and whether those who manned the exits had any official role.
Hyzler even stopped his investigation once he was informed that the Police were planning to charge the men and maintained his conclusions have no barring on the case, which is currently up for appeal.
This incident had taken place 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. A number of journalists were prevented from leaving the room in which the press conference was held.
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. It is now up for appeal.
Sources said that in his reply to Hyzler, Muscat was adamant that no journalists were locked into the room, referencing the heightened security brought up by protests outside the building after protestors tried to enter the building.
He was insistent that the media were only kept inside the room for two and a half minutes, stressing that this was the regular procedure.
There were eight unidentified men holding shut the doors. Muscat said some were employed by OPM but could not explain the presence of certain individuals in the building.
The men were Mark Gauci, Ronnie Vella, Nikhail Karl Spiteri (works at OPM), Leli McKay, Jody Pisani, Jason Bonnici (OPM), and Reuben Sciberras (OPM).
However, sources Hyzler said that the time frame was of “marginal relevance” to his report, noting that no one approached journalists to explain to them in a calm manner that they had to wait for a few minutes until the Prime Minister and the Ministers exited.
All OPM officers who testified confirmed that they did not speak to the journalists at all during the incident.
Whilst Ronnie Vella did claim that he spoke to the journalists and that he was shown speaking to a journalist on a video clip that was circulated on social media, when asked to produce a copy he undertook to do so, but later affirmed that he could not trace it. He does not remember which journalist he allegedly spoke to.
Sources claimed Hyzler said that the men were “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”.
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.
Using legal advice from Henri Mizzi of Camilleri Preziosi Advocates, Hyzler said that he is able to investigate people who have resigned or been removed. He said that the Speaker’s previous rulings do not affect his ability to investigate alleged breaches.
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