Standards Commissioner George Hyzler has just published a 20-page report into whether Prime Minister Robert Abela should have worn a mask when taking questions from journalists at an event last October.
Hyzler’s investigation was triggered by a complaint from Denis Tanti, who warned Abela had breached ethics by keeping his mask off, seeing as health guidelines only permit public speakers to go maskless if they maintain a two-metre distance from other people.
Hyzler said he felt the complaint merited an investigation, seeing as the Code of Ethics for ministers obliges them to respect the institutions, obey the law and lead by example.
The incident in question, at a press event in Santa Luċija, was also criticised at the time by the Institute of Maltese Journalists.
Hyzler sent questions to Abela, who responded that he was wearing a lilac mask at all times during the event in question, only taking it off to give his speech as is permitted by law.
“My media team had already told journalists to keep their social distance, such as by using microphone sticks,” he said. “However, at one point, I was surrounded by a number of journalists who placed their cameras and microphones around me and started asking me questions.”
“At no point did I move from my original position and I couldn’t even retreat from the journalists because there wasn’t space to do so. Meanwhile, I was concentrating on the questions I was being asked which I had to answer.”
“The last thing that crossed my mind was what the IĠM said afterwards, and I felt disappointed when I read their statement. I categorically deny breaching any regulation and I was surprised when I read the IĠM’s statement.”
“I understand that a few people try to give the false impression that I couldn’t care less about following the rules, but that is completely untrue and I’m not ready to accept it because it’s diametrically opposed to the truth.”
Hyzler analysed the footage, noting that the journalists had surrounded Abela out of their own free will, something the activity organisers should probably have anticipated in advance.
Barely any journalist used a microphone stick, and Abela was indeed stuck because Transport Minister Ian Borg and other government officials were standing right behind him.
“However, even if he had retreated, he would have been too far away from the journalists’ microphones and it’s possible that his responses wouldn’t have been recorded properly.”
“Seeing as the Prime Minister was caught in the uncomfortable situation, he had a choice of helping his mask on while answering questions or removing his mask despite the lack of two-metres between himself and the press. He should have chosen to keep his mask on.”
Hyzler concluded that Abela should have kept his mask on but that he wasn’t in breach of ethics by keeping it off.
“The Commissioner concluded that in the circumstances the Prime Minister should have kept his mask on, even if this would have made it harder for him to be understood, but bearing in mind that the Prime Minister and his team were wearing masks continuously (except for those minutes that gave rise to the complaint), the removal of his mask when faced with questions to which his replies would be reported by the media amounted to minor negligence and did not merit a finding of a breach of ethics. The Commissioner therefore dismissed the complaint.”
“The Commissioner stated that in such circumstances it would be advisable for the Prime Minister’s staff to ask journalists to move back, and for the Prime Minister not to answer questions (should he wish to remove his facemask) until they were at a distance of two metres. On their part, journalists should keep the required distance and for this reason the use of microphones on poles was recommendable.”
What do you make of this investigation?