Tista' taqra bil- Malti.
Former OPM head of communications Kurt Farrugia testified on Friday morning during the public inquiry into the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Farrugia who was worked very closely to then prime minister Joseph Muscat was appointed as Malta Enterprise CEO last year.
- Kurt Farrugia says that he had a ‘good’ relationship with journalists;
- He told the board of inquiry that looking back he would have done things differently in relation to the 2014 visit to Azerbaijan when a government delegation did not invite any of the local media;
- On government press statements relating to the Panama Papers, Farrugia says that he would verify the claims with former Minister Konrad Mizzi and former OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri and draft a statement based on the information they provide and the government position;
- The government used a foreign PR firm, Chelgate, in 2018 with Farrugia meeting some of its representatives when they were occasionally in Malta;
- Corinne Vella tells the board that Farrugia had blocked Daphne Caruana Galizia’s number.
During the last sitting, investigative journalist Victor Paul Borg testified during the public inquiry. His testimony was cut short after some 30 minutes, as his request for it to continue behind closed doors was turned down by the board of inquiry. Instead, the inquiry asked him to submit an affidavit, promising confidentiality.
Lawyers Jason Azzopardi and Peter Caruana Galizia are appearing for the family.
The inquiry board is led by retired judge Michael Mallia, assisted by retired Chief Justice Joseph Said Pullicino and Judge Abigail Lofaro.
The next sitting will be held on Wednesday at 9.15am.
The board upholds the request.
On Friday, MEP David Casa and a journalist will testify.
Glen Bedingfield and Neville Gafa and a newspaper which is supposed to be independent had led a coordinated attack aimed at making her look like a PN agent, Vella says, recalling that she has been photographed greeting Simon Busuttil in Valletta.
Madame Justice Lofaro notes that Farrugia needs to be recalled to testify.
Vella says that Farrugia had blocked Daphne Caruana Galizia's number. Vella also mentions this blog post: https://daphnecaruanagalizia.com/2017/04/governments-head-communications-woke-6-56am-today/
Caruana Galizia had said that "she had been turned into a national scapegoat and this has been gone on for the last 30 years".
A transcript of the recording will be provided to the board.
The interview was about threats. It was about two weeks before her assassination.
Farrugia says that in hindsight had they done it differently it would have been better.
"I don't remember. I didn't know him well… he was there for an audit which his firm was conducting," Farrugia says.
Lia objects loudly saying that this is all soundbites. The board says that the question is not admissible. Farrugia replies "I don't see why I have to reply to these questions".
Farrugia was also asked if he was involved in fish farming companies, to which he replied 'no'.
He says that he did not know about Sandstone involvement. The EU observer had written an article about misinformation relating to the murder.
"I had never been informed of this. I don't even remember exactly what story this was," Farrugia says.
Farrugia: No, I never made the request. We got to know after landing and we had laughed about it.
"There were some journalists who were tough with us, so we were tough with them," he says. ['huma kienu iebsin u ahna konna iebsin maghhom']
Dr Lia interjects. He screams that the lawyers appearing for the family cannot make questions. He complains that the questions are 'political and partisans'.
Farrugia replies but it is inaudible.
"When finally Mizzi was stripped off his portfolio as Energy Ministry it was very hard to close certain projects. Schembri would coordinate certain work," Farrugia recalls.
Farrugia says that he was of the opinion that people in such a position could not be embroiled in such controversies as their position became untenable. He says that he had told them as much then.
Farrugia: I would collect the replies and draft the response. He might have been called in. But I don't recall exactly.
Farrugia: Can't really say. We were replying to the questions.
Dr Azzopardi: Did you speak to Muscat about the matter?
Farrugia: He referred me to Schembri.
Farrugia says that he had specifically spoken to Keith Schembri about 17 Black when he had received questions from Reuters and Times of Malta. He found the answers he was given as "unsatisfactory".
Farrugia recalls Schembri acting surprised at the amount of detail in the questions.
Farrugia says 'yes'.
Dr Azzopardi: Do you think he was upfront? Do you think he was being honest?
Farrugia: At the time, I think yes.
Dr Azzopardi: Do you still think the same now?
Farrugia: I don't want to talk about what if, but new information has emerged that I didn't know. The same applies for Konrad Mizzi.
Farrugia replies in the negative.
Dr Azzopardi says that the public in Malta got to know about the trip from the Azeri media, with Farrugia replying that he had written up a statement.
Farrugia: We had discussed it and we thought that there was no need to have the media. In hindsight, we have learnt. The suspicions surrounding this visit is all smoke in the air.
Muscat had met with the president of Azerbaijan. Muscat had to speak at a conference organised by a think-tank / NGO.
TVM and DOI were invited but had gotten stuck in France because of a problem with connecting flights.
Farrugia: December 2014.
Dr Azzopardi: Who was there?
Farrugia: Joseph Muscat, Chief of Staff, Konrad Mizzi and myself.
The witness does not recall exactly.
Dr Azzopardi formally requests the witness to bring the communications had with her at a later sitting.
"This reward was mentioned several times, even in international publications," Farrugia says.
Azzopardi asks the witness to forward the various instances where the offer was made. He argues that the reward was never mentioned again, not even in parliament.
Dr Azzopardi: Do you confirm that either you or the PM that two particular arrests had happened?
Farrugia: Hmm. I got to know from the media.
Dr Azzopardi: No, no we got to know from you before the media.
Farrugia explains that he would have three to five requests a week for an interview with the prime minister.
"At the time it was my judgement that he wasn't a journalist for the Economist," Farrugia says.
Farrugia says that he would regularly communicate with then Times of Malta journalist Caroline Muscat even if she was critical of the government.
Invites to government's press coverage are sent out by the Department of Information.
He says that in seven years they had not stopped anyone from attending from a press conference.
After protesting, Farrugia remembers Clapp saying that he thought that Clapp was a freelance journalist who once wrote for the economist. He adds that the language used by Clapp was not of a journalist from the Economist. Then he mentions some foreign news outlets he dealt with in the past, saying that they never used such language.
Farrugia replies in the affirmative.
PEN International had accused Farrugia of distorting its open letter in which it slammed the outrageous behaviour of V18 chairman Jason Micallef. Azzopardi asks on whose orders was the letter distorted.
Farrugia says that "it is their opinion that it was distorted. It is what they are saying."
Dr Lia peers over Dr Azzopardi's shoulder to see where he was reading from.
After Muscat's interview with BBC's John Sweeney, Lovin Malta CEO Chris Peregin had written an imaginary interview with Muscat. 'What instructions were given to refuse interviews?'
Farrugia explains that when requests came in, they would assess the request.
Dr Azzopardi asks whether they told foreign journalists to refrain from asking about the investigation.
He refers to a time when a journalist sent him an email from a Gmail account claiming to be from the Economist, Alexander Clapp. Farrugia says that he had seen it strange, adding that he had spoken to his contact the Economist and asked whether he worked for them. The answer was negative.
Farrugia says that he had written back to say that they could meet but the journalist could not ask about certain issues as there would be a magisterial inquiry underway.
Dr Azzopardi said that he would bring evidence contradicting this after the witness finished testifying.
Farrugia and Lia object.
Farrugia says that he has a right to know what the evidence is.
Lia says "what essentially Dr Azzopardi is saying that he would bring evidence that would show that Farrugia is lying." [Biex iggidbu]
Azzopardi: Had you seen Mark Gasan, Peter Apap Bologna or Yorgen Fenech on the fourth floor before January 2013?
"I always saw that our relationships with foreign and local press were good, even when the situation were difficult," he says.
Farrugia says that he always did so as a government official.
Mr Justice Said Pullicino asks if Caruana Galizia's blog was an open source.
Dr Lia was seen shaking his head no, while Farrugia replied "no" saying that she was incorrect.
"Many times she was incorrect," Farrugia says.
"I'm sorry, also because I lived through the Egrant saga. I know that the information was not correct," he says.
"I was convinced that they were baseless allegations on Joseph Muscat and Michelle Muscat," Farrugia says.
"I don't recall that the extent of those allegations had emerged by then," Farrugia says.
Knowing Mizzi's intention to contest the deputy leadership, Farrugia had told him to refrain from contesting if there was something amiss.
"The first time that I heard an inference about something not being right was when Caruana Galizia had posted a cryptic image of a Panama hat and a New Zealand lamb," Farrugia sasy.
When Farrugia confronted Mizzi about his mention in the Running Commentary, he had replied that it was "bluff".
"I don't recall listening in a meeting where personal interests were being discussed," he says.
"Are you referring to 17 Black?" Madame Justice Lofaro asks.
The negative elements were made behind his back, suggests the panel.
Mr Justice Said Pullicino refers to Muscat's "stones in his shoes", observing that the public does not know what this means.
Farrugia asks for more specific questions.
Said Pullicino says that it has transpired throughout the inquiry that employees until a certain level were honest hard working individuals and had been "betrayed".
Farrugia is asked about the fourth floor of the PL HQ. He replies that this was used for electoral planning.
"It was a taboo or anathema for PL to have some kind of relationship with the business world and it was one of the points that we had addressed in 2008. We wanted to bridge our policies on talks with constituted bodies and representatives of unions and industry to form policies," he says.
He says that they had given them a document.
The board of inquiry asks whether it had missing paragraphs.
Farrugia says that the document was prepared by them.
Madame Justice Lofaro says there is a suspicion that they had held back information about Pilatus Bank.
Farrugia says that he did not have information that he did not pass on.
The journalist from the Swiss outlet would sometimes tag Farrugia on Twitter and he had replied to him on occasion.
Farrugia says that he has heard about the foreign company. He adds that there were some interactions with the company. They interacted with the company in 2018.
The company is a PR company, with whom Farrugia would communicate to draft the government's message especially when dealing with foreign media.
The witness says that he had communicated with Robert Winstanley. He adds that Winstanley had come to Malta on occasion.
Farrugia was called in for a meeting which turned out to be one OPM briefing on the murder concerning the action the police were intending to take against some suspects.
For that OPM briefing, Farrugia says that the brigadier, Keith Schembri, Joseph Muscat, the Police Commissioner, and Keith Arnaud, were present for sure.
Farrugia says that Muscat had addressed those present asking to divulge details on a need to know basis without mentioning any names of suspect.
He says that the statements released at the time of the government, he would draft them after having spoken to them. He adds that the statement would reflect the government's position.
Asked about 17 Black, he says that he had asked them about 17 Black. Schembri and Mizzi had denied any connection to the Dubai based company, Farrugia says, adding that he had stopped there.
"Kienu qishom ahwa," Madame Justice Lofaro observes.
"I didn't know they were like brothers," he says.
He only found out about their friendship from the media during the arrests. He adds that by the time he was no longer at OPM.
Farrugia had seen Fenech twice. Once for an event for the power station where he was among the members of the public and once at Castille possibly for a meeting with Schembri.
"We had one Opposition MP who was in court with family problems. We would never publish any stories about this," he says.
"Bedingfield had been a journalist, but he had political aspirations. I worked with him for many years," he says.
"Sometimes I agreed with his style sometimes I didn't… we had discussions about his style," he says. Farrugia says that he had suggested that he "tones it down" but stresses that this was a suggestion as a friend rather than an order.
Farrugia says that the cost of electricity was already an issue. Mizzi had taken an interest in the sector. According to Farrugia, Mizzi took it upon himself to speak about energy.
Farrugia adds that he saw Fenech at public occasions and these were very occasionally.
Farrugia was not with Schembri or Muscact at the time.
Farrugia says that he did not really know Schembri at the time, but he knew he was a friend of Muscat, when asked about the board about his relationship with Schembri. He says that he got to know through work in 2013 with the election.
"I felt as if the world collapsed on me," he says.
Farrugia says that Muscat had then called the Opposition Leader. He recalls Muscat writing down what he would say after asking for a press conference before the police commissioner had not even confirmed that it was Caruana Galizia.
Farrugia recalls that on the day, it was the Opposition Leader's reply in parliament on the budget.
They had an event with foreign companies in Sliema for which Economy Minister was present with the delegation but not Keith Schembri, Farrugia says.
"Keith Schembri was not with us at Sliema. I assume he was in Castille," he recalls.
The former head of communications recalls that Caruana Galizia had reduced her focus on the PL at the time and focused on the PN leadership race.
He says that he never had copies of the FIAU and would read them off the media. "They were in everybody's hands but mine."
"I didn't feel it was my remit to speak to people part of structures not part of government. It certainly wasn't my role to investigate," he says.
"They definitely didn't have an office at Castille," he adds.
Farrugia says that he had seen Tonna at Castille. He explains that if he recalled correctly, in the beginning Tonna and Cini were doing some audits. "They didn't have a specific office," he says.
"Kont inmur f'ras il-ghajn," he says.
Farrugia says that he would draft the press statements after speaking to those involved.
Mr Justice Mallia: Had you ever spoken to PM Muscat about the Panama Papers?
Farrugia: Yes I had.
He had not spoken to her about the Panama Papers.
"I don't believe she had ever asked about the Panama Papers," he says.
Farrugia says that when the Panama Papers were revealed, he monitored to the newspapers to be able to issue a reaction.
He had spoken to both then minister Konrad Mizzi and Schembri and formulated a reaction.
Mr Justice Mallia asks him what their reaction was.
"I don't remember exactly but they had said that there were incorrect assertions," Farrugia says.
Over time she became more aggressive and there were a number of stories which started to be picked up by other media, he says. He is referring to the time after the Panama Papers reveal.
"Her work didn't start in 2013 but long before. Her pen was very critical of the Partit Laburista… at that time I was a journalist at maltastar.com which was a PL online portal. She was critical of journalists who either worked for the PL media or independent journalists who sympathized with the PL," he says.
He says that he did not have much interactions with Caruana Galizia. His few interactions were "very courteous" he says. Except shortly after 2008 elections, when he was a Maltastar.com journalist. He recalls a debate at university where she was present.
"We had made a story about her presence. She had been part of the crowd there. They were making jokes about wigs. There was a small incident between Caruana Galizia's son and a ONE cameraman, " he recalls.
'There was a political structure aside from the civil service one, that I was answerable to,' he says.