Press freedom watchdog flags safety concerns over Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sources

European press freedom watchdog Mapping Media Freedom (MAPMF) has recorded a new breach in Malta, this time in connection with murder suspect Yorgen Fenech’s attempt to access the phone of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia.

Fenech, accused of orchestrating and financing the assassination of Caruana Galizia, asked the court in February for a copy of Caruana Galizia’s phone data – a decision that has been recognized as a “legal incident” and a “violation of anonymity” by the watchdog. The attempt raised concerns about the protection of Caruana Galizia’s sources.

“If the court decides that the defense has access to the complete and unredacted data, it will expose the identities of the sources, also putting them at risk of harm and legal action,” the incident report said.

The phone is part of the evidence collected as part of the investigations into the murder of Caruana Galizia and is presented as evidence in the criminal proceedings against the accused. The accused has the right, under the law, to access all the evidence presented.

“While the journalist was working on sensitive investigations, communicating with sources using her mobile phone and likely receiving data and information through her phone, there is a high risk of exposure to sources and source material. if the defendant has access to the full data,” the report said.

The data is likely to include names and numbers, documents, photographs, contacts and other types of data files that “may identify sources”.

The incident report also notes that Electrogas, of which Fenech was one of the directors, had already asked the police to investigate a data leak within the company, on which “a masterful investigation is said to be underway to identify this source.

Concern prevails despite Attorney General’s statement in court

Following the request of the accused and after an alert was raised by Caruana Galizia’s lawyer with the Attorney General, the AG’s office told the court that, although there is no intention to deny the accused access to any part of the evidence, he asks the court to hand over the data in its entirety except for data that exposes the identity of the sources and other sensitive data related to the sources .

However, the incident report explains that data anonymization may not, by itself, be able to protect sources from identification and “ensuring full protection of sources is very difficult if data is granted to the ‘accused without the necessary safeguards’.

Even partial data or data traces could be combined with other information or data not necessarily related to the same device “to create an information picture through puzzle identification that could put the source at risk,” says- he, adding that for such a task to be performed, it is likely that a court-appointed expert would need to know the identity of the sources.

“Without in-depth knowledge of Daphne’s modus operandi, scope of research, lines of inquiry, network of contacts and network of sources, there is a risk that information that could be used to identify a source or traced back to a suspicious source, will be handed over to the accused, putting not only the identity of the source or sources at risk, but perhaps their lives as well”.

This latest episode is the fifth threat recorded by the platform in 2022, despite Prime Minister Robert Abela’s assurances to international press freedom NGOs last October on his commitment to ensuring the safety of journalists.

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