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Malta: IPI supports Shift News in unprecedented freedom of…

Malta: IPI supports Shift News in unprecedented freedom of information battle

The International Press Institute (IPI) and its global network stand behind our member The Shift News as it faces an unprecedented legal battle with the Maltese government over freedom of information requests it submitted linked to expenditure of public contracts.

IPI sees the case as emblematic of the problematic climate for transparency, journalists’ access to information and media freedom in Malta. We support The Shift in its public interest mission to scrutinize power and provide citizens with information about the use of taxpayer money.

 

The Shift, a small independent news outlet, today launched a fresh crowdfunding campaign to help pay the legal costs of fighting the FOI cases in court. The estimated expense of challenging all the cases is €40,000 – half of its operational budget for one year.

 

To safeguard its independence, the online newspaper is the only media outlet in Malta which refuses to accept funding or advertising contacts from the government or any political party and is instead run on a community-funded model.

 

The Shift is facing identical, taxpayer-funded appeals from 40 different government entities against the decision of the Maltese Information and Data Protection Commissioner to side with the media outlet and grant it access to contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Saviour Balzan and his commercial entities.

 

The Appeals Tribunal has so far ruled on 12 of those cases, siding with The Shift and the Commissioner in all of them. Five state entities have so far filed secondary appeal lawsuits. Dozens more government bodies could eventually end up making additional appeals, initiating yet more time consuming and costly legal battles.

 

IPI and our global network stand firmly behind our member The Shift News, its Managing Editor Caroline Muscat, and the news outlet’s vital watchdog journalism mission in Malta”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “The clear public interest in releasing the requested information has already been recognized not once, but twice.

 

The continued efforts by the government to needlessly challenge these decisions drag out the process is inexplicable and seriously undermines transparency and the freedom of the press. We are concerned these coordinated appeals are also aimed at draining The Shift of time and resources that could otherwise be spent carrying out public service reporting.

 

We call on the government entities to immediately drop outstanding appeals, put an end to this absurd waste of taxpayer money, and provide the requested contacts in a timely manner. IPI also calls on its members around the world to join us in expressing support for The Shift and to consider donating to its crowdfunding campaign.

 

IPI is currently working with partner organizations to secure funding to help support The Shift’s legal defence and hopes to make further announcements in the coming days.

 

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

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Tackling Impunity: Lessons from the Public Inquiry into the…

Tackling Impunity: Lessons from the Public Inquiry into the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

The murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia sent shockwaves across Europe and was a grim reminder of the risk reporters face while uncovering abuses of power. It was the first assassination of a journalist worldwide to be investigated through an independent Public Inquiry. To mark one year since the damning findings were unveiled, ARTICLE 19 Europe and The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation today publish a report that explores the efficacy of the Maltese Public Inquiry model, assessing whether it stands up as good practice.

The Public Inquiry into the circumstances of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination was the first Public Inquiry to have taken place in Malta in nearly 20 years. It followed a strong public demand for a strengthened capacity to tackle corruption and wider rule-of-law reforms. The research from ARTICLE 19 Europe and The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, ‘Tackling Impunity: Lessons from the Public Inquiry into the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia’, assesses the significance of the Maltese Public Inquiry in the fight for truth, accountability and justice for Daphne’s assassination and the vital role civil society and international organisations play in ensuring an independent investigation is carried out. In addition, the report identifies lessons that can be learned from the Public Inquiry process so far, summarises its key achievements, and makes recommendations to the Government of Malta, to European Union institutions, and to international civil society.

This report was coordinated as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Malta: Public Inquiry report recommendations must be implemented

Malta: Public Inquiry report recommendations must be implemented

A year on from the publication of the Public Inquiry report into the assassination of Malta’s leading investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, the undersigned organisations urge the Maltese authorities to comply with their international human rights obligations and implement the report’s recommendations without further delay to ensure effective protection of journalists going forward. We are concerned at the lack of implementation of the recommendations of this milestone Public Inquiry.

Today, 29 July, marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of the landmark Public Inquiry report into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, which was found to be both predictable and preventable. The Inquiry found ‘[T]he State should bear the responsibility for the assassination by creating a climate of impunity, generated from the highest levels at the core of the administration … and spreading its tentacles to other entities such as regulatory institutions and the Police.’1 This, the Board found, led to the collapse of the rule of law; a failure to acknowledge the real and immediate risk to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s life; and a failure to take effective preventive measures to protect her.

 

In its report the Board of Inquiry made a number of key recommendations to restore the rule of law and avoid that an assassination like that of Daphne Caruana Galizia can ever happen again. The recommendations provided an historic opportunity for the Government of Malta to implement its international human rights obligations to create an enabling environment for journalism and to protect journalists. 

 

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation and Article 19 Europe publish a report today on the Public Inquiry including an evaluation of the implementation of its recommendations. It finds that to date, with minor exceptions, the Government of Malta has failed to implement these recommendations and has rejected proposals to implement anti-corruption legislation. The changes introduced so far are token gestures, rather than urgently needed, radical and effective change. 

 

In particular, the Government has failed to implement the recommendation to introduce laws tackling financial crime and corruption. Notwithstanding the changes made to the appointment of the Attorney General and Police Commissioner as part of the recommendations of the Venice Commission, serious concerns prevail that the Malta Police and the Office of the Attorney General still fail to truly initiate investigations and carry out effective prosecutions on the trails of corruption leading to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, as well as on related scandals that emerged post her death, alongside ongoing magisterial inquiries. 

 

The persistent lack of political will to prosecute corruption revealed by journalists, including Daphne Caruana Galizia, has been seriously criticised. The European Public Prosecutor (EPPO), the EU’s financial crime watchdog, Laura Kövesi, has questioned whether there is political will to tackle corruption commenting that, “Malta is paying lip service in its efforts to crack down on EU fraud and corruption.” Even where investigations have been initiated, the profound delays in prosecuting corruption, including in the Pilatus Bank scandal uncovered by Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2016, contribute to a context of impunity for corruption. The delay in implementing the Public Inquiry recommendations on anti-corruption are prejudicial to journalists who continue to report on the corruption which Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed for exposing and on other malfeasance and who remain at serious risk. 

 

While some initiatives have been taken within the Maltese police force to establish a main contact point with journalists, much work remains to be done both in terms of training of the police on international standards as they relate to freedom of expression and in securing the trust of journalists. Offers of assistance in this regard from international media freedom organisations have gone unanswered. 

 

A “Committee of Experts on Media” was announced on 11 January 2022 and tasked to provide Prime Minister Robert Abela with feedback on draft law reform proposals pertaining to freedom of expression and media freedom which the Prime Minister submitted to the Committee. The Terms of Reference for the Committee fail to require that the committee is independent, made up of individuals of demonstrable integrity and expertise, and that it should have cross-societal support. The lack of transparency and consultation with which the committee has operated since receiving its ToR poses a major concern to its legitimacy. The committee has not met with civil society, media or journalists nor the Caruana Galizia family. It has also refused to participate in conferences relating to media freedom in Malta. While it is understood that the Prime Minister was presented with the Committee’s advice on his draft legislation and that the Committee is continuing its work, the process it has opted to follow lacks transparency.

 

The Government of Malta has put forward two draft legal proposals for the committee to examine: one to “to amend the Constitution and various other laws to strengthen the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy and to implement various measures for the protection of the media and of journalists”; and another “to provide for the establishment of structures for the protection of democratic society including the protection of journalists, other persons with a role in the media and in non-governmental organisations and persons in public life.” The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and ARTICLE 19 have analysed the proposals for their compliance with Malta’s obligations under international human rights standards and have made important recommendations to strengthen the proposals including to ensure better protection of journalists, the right to information and comprehensive protection for journalists against SLAPPs. 

 

One year on from the publication of the Public Inquiry report and almost five years since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, we urge the Government of Malta once again to live up to its international obligations and implement the recommendations of the Board’s report, along with those of the OSCE, Venice and GRECO Commissions, in a transparent manner without further delay and in full consultation with all stakeholders. 

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Association of European Journalists
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • IFEX
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • PEN International
  • Reporters Without Borders

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Malta: Media battle for access to public information

Malta: Media battle for access to public information

Press freedom groups raise concern over unprecedented FOI obstructions. The undersigned international media freedom organisations today express growing concern over the challenges that media outlets in Malta face in accessing public information through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The unprecedented appeals by some 30 government ministries and entities against a decision by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner which ordered the disclosure of information on public expenditure requested by The Shift News are emblematic of these challenges.

The appeals stem from FOI requests that The Shift’s editor sent to various public bodies which sought documents about possible contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Saviour Balzan and his commercial entities. The Shift stressed the information was in the public interest as it concerned the use of public money. However, those requests were denied by multiple entities, which argued the information requested did not exist in the form of standard documentation.

After the newspaper appealed, a review by the Data Commissioner rejected this argument and ordered the disclosure of the documents. One by one, around 30 different ministries and public authorities have since filed identical appeals, arguing the requests put an undue burden on state departments. These coordinated challenges underway at the Appeals Tribunal will result in costly and time-consuming court battles for the newspaper, which will be drained both financially and psychologically. Already the outlet has been forced to turn to a crowdfunding campaign to fund its legal case.

This case is about a simple principle that affects all media in Malta: the right to access publicly held information on how taxpayer money is used. This is a basic right that is essential for the functioning of democracy. The coordinated refusal by Maltese authorities to abide by the Data Commissioner’s finding that there is a clear public interest justification for the information disclosed is highly concerning. It carries serious implications for transparency and media freedom and sets a precedent that damages the ability of all media in Malta to do their work.

Moreover, the transparency of Saviour Balzan’s relations with the government is of wider importance to press freedom in Malta: he is one of the seven members of the Committee of Experts which will oversee the implementation of recommendations resulting from the public inquiry about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. While the collection of documents by ministries may well be burdensome, this is not a sufficient reason to decline the release of public interest information. We therefore urge the relevant public bodies to respect the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Commissioner’s ruling, drop their appeals and provide the requested documentation in a timely fashion.

Worryingly, the Shift’s current experience is illustrative of a far wider problem regarding access to information in Malta. Public bodies regularly deny FOI requests from media on arbitrary grounds. Responses are often delayed until the last possible minute and often followed by requests for extensions. When FOI requests are accepted, information is often incomplete. Regular appeals to the Data Commissioner meanwhile lead to lengthy and taxpayer-funded court battles, further undermining timely reporting. Evidence also suggests that FOI requests from certain media outlets, or on certain topics, are handled in a discriminatory manner by certain administrative bodies. Inundated with appeals, Malta’s under-resourced Data Commissioner lacks the capacity to take up every case.

The result is that rather than fostering a culture of transparency, Malta’s current freedom of information legislation is regularly being abused to obstruct requests and obfuscate the disclosure of public information. Moving forward, it is increasingly clear that amendments to the existing 2008 law are needed. Revisions have already been called for by both the current Data Commissioner and the independent board of the Public Inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Similar concerns have also been raised by the Venice Commission and the Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Our organisations agree that reforms are needed to first make the judicial process for FOI appeals less cumbersome and secondly to remove the right of public authorities to appeal an order granting the commissioner the right to access a document as part of the commissioner’s decision on whether or not it should be released. Enacting such changes would make significant improvements to the system for freedom of information and help support watchdog journalism in Malta. Ultimately though, any changes in legislation will only be effective if supplemented by the development of a culture of transparency and accountability within government. Our organisations stand ready to assist in any way we can in developing these FOI amendments in the coming years.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Malta: MFRR expresses concern at anonymisation of court judgements

Malta: MFRR expresses concern at anonymisation of court judgements

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) together with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to Prime Minister of Malta Dr. Robert Abela and Minister for Justice, Equality and Governance, Dr Edward Zammit Lewis to express concern about Legal Notice L.N. 456 of 2021 and the online publication of court judgements.

Dear Prime Minister Dr Robert Abela,

Dear Minister of Justice Dr Edward Zammit Lewis,

 

We write in relation to Legal Notice L.N. 456 of 2021 regarding the online publication of court judgments, which codifies a highly problematic existing practice in Malta. We are concerned by its conferral of unfettered discretion upon the Director-General of Courts to decide upon an application for the exercise of the right of erasure of personal data from a court judgment published on the website of the Court Services Agency. This enables arbitrary decision-making that damages the right to information, unduly hinders journalists’ reporting in the public interest and undermines the separation of powers.

 

The principle of publicity of court proceedings, including the verdict, as protected under European human rights law and extensively developed in the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence, is an essential means for realising the right to a fair trial and maintaining public confidence in the judiciary. In this regard, court reporting by journalists is crucial because it informs the public how justice is done. To fulfil this public interest role, journalists must be able to rely on a comprehensive record of fully published verdicts.

 

According to the Board of the Public Inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia:

 

There ought not only to be structures which guarantee adequate protection of the physical person but also by the State creating a favourable environment which allows [journalists] to exercise their profession in a secure and effective manner.

 

We recognise there may be legitimate reasons why certain judgments or parts thereof ought not to be public, for instance to protect the rights of minors among other things. However, we are highly concerned by this Legal Notice’s codification of the existing practice that bestows the Director-General of Courts, a non-judicial appointee without statutory autonomy who is appointed by and answers directly to the Minister of Justice, with full discretion to decide whether a judgment is partially anonymised or even removed from the public record altogether or never published in the first place. This now-codified practice calls into question the Maltese government’s commitment to transparency and the separation of powers.

 

Moreover, we consider it disingenuous to rely on the right to be forgotten as the motivation underlying this Legal Notice. This principle pertains to delisting from a commercial search engine, such as Google, under specific circumstances. This cannot be compared to the removal of personal data from an online service administered by the government that contains public records. The Court of Justice of the European Union’s attention for balancing this right to be forgotten with the need to ensure access to information that is in the public interest serves to further emphasise this point, particularly in relation to criminal records.

 

In light of these concerns, we urge you to rescind Legal Notice L.N. 456 of 2021.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Malta: Concerns over campaign of disinformation and spoof websites…

Malta: Concerns over campaign of disinformation and spoof websites targeting media

The partner organisations in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are highly concerned about attempts to spread disinformation and discredit Maltese journalists and bloggers who write about the recently indicted murder suspect alleged to have orchestrated and funded the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

 

On 26 August, independent blogger Manuel Delia wrote that “someone somewhere is pretending to be me and sending emails that look like I’ve sent them and building spoof websites to look like they’re carrying things I wrote.” The smear campaign, which included fake emails from Delia saying he was suffering from a mental illness, came after the murder suspect falsely accusing Delia of pressuring a judge to keep him in prison. Delia was then targeted by harassment on social media that suggested he should be “taught a lesson”.

On 28 and 29 August, it was then reported that the websites of news outlets Times of Malta, Newsbook, Net News, Lovin Malta, TVM and StradaRjali as well as the non-governmental organisation Repubblika were spoofed. Many of the fake platforms were registered using the same domain registration service. The common thread between the fake articles is their apparent aim of discrediting journalists and bloggers writing about the alleged mastermind and casting doubt on the prosecution’s case against him.

While it is currently unclear who is behind the impersonation and fake websites, widely-read blogger Simon Mercieca has been feeding the frenzy, claiming (under the guise of asking critical questions) that Repubblika pays Delia 30,000 euros per year to be its Executive Officer and rents offices from Delia’s wife; both claims are untrue. It is not the first time that Mercieca has spread unverified or false information that aims to discredit reporters who cover criminal proceedings related to the main suspect in Caruana Galizia’s murder. For instance, earlier this month, Mercieca attempted to damage the reputation of Matthew Xuereb, Assistant Editor at the Times of Malta and President of the Institute of Maltese Journalists, by falsely claiming that Xuereb was behind a fake Facebook trolling profile.

Mercieca has also targeted the Caruana Galizia family, falsely claiming that they were in privileged possession of a non-PDF electronic version of the report of the Public Inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination in advance of its publication which, Mercieca claimed, “allows the family to make corrections and changes, possibly also to its advantage”. Earlier this year, Mercieca purported that it was “pertinent to ask” whether organisations supporting Daphne Caruana Galizia’s cause “are receiving funds or help to pressurize our judiciary” in a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic post.

The MFRR stands in solidarity with the targeted journalists, media workers and members of civil society. We call on all those involved to immediately end their campaign of disinformation. The Maltese State must swiftly investigate and prosecute any criminal acts committed in this context. Furthermore, we call on the Maltese authorities to take decisive action towards the implementation of the Public Inquiry’s recommendations concerning the protection of journalists, including those stemming from its identification of the State’s failure to protect reporters and media workers before attacks escalate to physical violence.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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Malta: Tycoon Yorgen Fenech to face trial for murder…

Malta: Tycoon Yorgen Fenech to face trial for murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia

Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese business mogul, has been indicted for the murder of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 and will face a trial by jury on a date yet to be set. Fenech faces charges of complicity in murder and criminal association. So far, Vince Muscat has been sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to the murder earlier this year. Two further alleged hitmen, the brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio will also face trial. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomes Fenech’s indictment and urges the Maltese authorities to finally end impunity and punish everyone involved in this heinous crime.

Almost four years have passed since Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car bombing on 16 October 2017 close to her home in northern Malta. Her reporting focused on high-level corruption, including investigations into the Panama Papers in 2016. She was investigating possible corruption in a contract between Fenech and the Maltese government for the building of a power station when she was killed.

While Vince Muscat, one of the hitmen contracted for the murder, has been sentenced to prison, Yorgen Fenech is considered the mastermind behind the murder by Caruana’s family. On 20 November 2019, Fenech was arrested while he was leaving Malta on his private yacht. He has been under arrest since, undergoing a pre-trial compilation of evidence where he pleaded not guilty.

The prosecutors who filed the bill of indictment in court today, Wednesday 18 August, are said to be pushing for a life in prison sentence for complicity in murder and an additional 20 to 30-year sentence for criminal association. Melvin Theuma, the assassination plot’s self-confessed middleman, had previously claimed that Fenech tasked him with organising the murder. The indictment bill reads: “Yorgen Fenech wanted Melvin Theuma to find someone willing to kill Daphne Caruana Galizia.” The date for the trial is yet to be set.

Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, the EFJ President, reacted: “Impunity for crimes against journalists must end. We are hopeful that justice will finally be served and we will closely observe the upcoming trials. Too often, it is only hitmen, if even, that get caught, while the masterminds behind the crimes are running free. The Maltese authorities must punish everyone involved in the brutal murder.”

In July 2021, a public inquiry into the assassination found the state of Malta responsible for her death, saying that the state had failed to recognise risks to the reporter’s life and take reasonable steps to avoid them. The inquiry concluded that a culture of impunity was created from the highest echelons of power in Malta, singling out former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for enabling this culture of impunity.

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Malta: Yorgen Fenech to stand trial for murder of…

Malta: Yorgen Fenech to stand trial for murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia

Prosecutors seek life imprisonment on charges of complicity in murder and criminal association.

Maltese prosecutors today indicted the man accused of ordering the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in another important milestone in the fight against impunity and for full justice for her assassination.

On August 18, prosecutors filed the bill of indictment in court seeking life imprisonment for businessman Yorgen Fenech on charges of complicity in murder and criminal association, paving the way for him to stand trial by jury over the 2017 killing.

Prosecutors allege that in April that year, Fenech contacted a middleman about finding someone who could carry out the murder, provided €150,000 in cash to pay the alleged hitmen and ultimately gave the green light for the fatal car bomb to be detonated.

“Today’s indictment of the man alleged to have effectively orchestrated and funded the assassination is a milestone in the fight against impunity and another important step down the road to full justice for Daphne’s murder”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Though a long and at times painful process for her family, we are glad to see the compilation of evidence result in a bill of indictment by prosecutors.

“The role of judging responsibility for this horrific crime will now lie with a Maltese jury. Until then, we continue to demand justice for Daphne’s murder and consequences for the corruption she exposed. She deserves the truth; her family deserve the truth. This case has global significance: impunity for those responsible cannot be allowed to continue.”

Long fight for justice

The long-sought indictment comes 46 months after the assassination in October 2017 and three weeks after an independent public inquiry concluded that the state must bear shared responsibility in fomenting a culture of impunity in which the murder could be carried out.

The business mogul has been in preventive custody since November 2019 after being arrested while allegedly trying to flee Malta aboard his yacht. Considerable evidence against him has since been compiled during a lengthy legal process.

IPI understands it is expected to take around one year for the trial to begin.

The alleged middleman, taxi driver Vincent Muscat, has already been sentenced to 15 years behind bars after changing his plea to guilty in February. The two alleged hitmen, brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, are set to face trial over executing the contract killing. Both maintain their innocence.

The bill of indictment, a formal criminal accusation that a person has committed a crime, came the same day as Fenech’s legal team again requested bail in court. The prosecution contested by presenting WhatsApp messages sent by the accused which they allege demonstrate his intention to flee Malta after the assassination, which Fenech denies. It was also alleged Fenech ordered weapons including grenades and rifles with hundreds of bullets, as well as a gun silencer and 20 grams of potassium sodium cyanide powder.

Maltese media reported that it was understood prosecutors were seeking life imprisonment for the crime of complicity in murder and a further 20 to 30 years for criminal association. The indictment was filed by the Deputy Attorney General Philip Galea Farrugia.